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Following the lead of federal reforms, North Carolina is currently considering new legislation that would impose common-sense sentencing reforms for low-level, non-violent drug offenders. 

Under the First Step Act, judges would be allowed to use their discretion when determining the sentencing for certain drug offenses, and in some cases override the mandatory minimum sentence. 

North Carolina currently has strictly enforced mandatory minimums for drug trafficking, which are not only an injustice to defendants, but also fill North Carolina prisons with nonviolent drug offenders at taxpayers’ expense.

Let’s take a look at the proposed First Step Act, and what it would mean for defendants facing drug crime charges. We’ll also cover the mandatory minimums currently in effect for North Carolina drug crimes.

The North Carolina First Step Act

North Carolina already strictly imposes mandatory minimums for drug trafficking, a crime that isn’t always what you think it is. Under state law, simply possessing certain amounts of drugs is automatically deemed to be drug trafficking, even when the defendant is only an addict that needs recovery treatment. 

In these types of cases, imposing mandatory minimum sentences is a disservice to the defendant. A lengthy prison sentence removes the defendant from the community for a long period of time, and may actually exacerbate the defendant’s addiction. 

When the defendant is released from prison, he or she is actually more likely to re-offend, and potentially commit other crimes for drug money.

Defendants with substance abuse and mental health problems who are convicted of low-level drug crimes often experience much better outcomes through treatment, community supervision, and opportunities for a second chance.

Under the new legislation, judges would have the discretion to override the mandatory minimum sentencing for drug trafficking if the judge deems that the standard minimum sentencing would be a substantial injustice to the defendant, and is not necessary to protect the public. 

In other words, the judge could – but would not be required to – reduce the prison term or fine, or suspend the prison term, instead of placing the defendant on probation. This action prioritizes rehabilitation for drug crime offenders over costly prison terms, which do little to address addiction and may even make matters worse. 

Although the bill has met some opposition, it has also gained bipartisan support, as it potentially offers relief for drug addicts and taxpayers alike. 

Under this plan, drug addicts are more likely to seek help for addiction, while government spending on costly prison terms could be reduced.

North Carolina’s Current Mandatory Minimums

Although this legislation is a step in the right direction, North Carolina’s mandatory minimums will still remain in effect for many drug trafficking offenders. Offenders can expect the following mandatory minimums for possession of trafficking quantities of controlled substances. 

Heroin, Opiates, and Opium

  • 4-14 grams: 70 months
  • 14-28 grams: 90 months
  • 28+ grams: 175 months


  • 28-200 grams: 35 months
  • 200-400 grams: 70 months
  • 400+ grams: 175 months


  • 28-200 grams: 70 months
  • 200-400 grams: 90 months
  • 400+ grams: 225 months


  • 10-50 pounds: 25 months
  • 50-2,000 pounds: 35 months
  • 2,000-10,000 pounds: 70 months

North Carolina Drug Lawyers

In sum, while we can expect North Carolina’s drug crime mandatory minimums to remain in effect for years to come, The First Step Act is just that – a solid first step for drug sentencing reform.

That said, this legislation, even if it is signed into law within the next year or two will leave many offenders facing the same harsh minimum sentencing. 

If you are facing state drug trafficking charges, an aggressive North Carolina criminal defense is still necessary in order to ensure the best possible outcome in your case. 

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