Bringing The World Home To You

© 2024 WUNC North Carolina Public Radio
120 Friday Center Dr
Chapel Hill, NC 27517
919.445.9150 | 800.962.9862
91.5 Chapel Hill 88.9 Manteo 90.9 Rocky Mount 91.1 Welcome 91.9 Fayetteville 90.5 Buxton 94.1 Lumberton 99.9 Southern Pines 89.9 Chadbourn
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

‘We bought it at a smoke shop’: Police video of violent arrest shows confusion over legal THC

Officers piled onto a woman under arrest
Body camera
CMPD officers arresting Christina Pierre outside her workplace.

Charlotte-Mecklenburg police on Tuesday released more than 30 videos of the arrest last month of two people who say they were smoking THC-A, a legal, hemp-derived product with intoxicating effects similar to cannabis.

The footage raised questions whether the arrest was justified and whether police used excessive force. All charges against the pair were dropped a few weeks later, after their attorney said they had told police they were smoking THC-A cigarettes bought from a nearby smoke shop.

During the arrest, police repeatedly punched Christina Pierre, including in the face, when police say she resisted them. On Tuesday, CMPD Chief Johnny Jennings said Officer Vincent Pistone has been suspended for 40 hours due to excessive force. He struck Pierre 17 times while trying to subdue her, but Jennings said only the first three strikes were justified.

The arrest and the bodycam videos show the confusion around, and difficulty of, enforcing marijuana laws in an age when variants of the drug are commonly and openly sold. It’s unclear whether the officers involved were aware of the proliferation of new mind-altering cannabis products that are now sold in stores throughout Charlotte and the state.

Jennings said soon after the incident that the arrest and physical force were justified, and that he was disappointed in District Attorney Spencer Merriweather's decision to drop the charges. On Tuesday, he repeated his assessment that the officers were justified to approach and initiate an arrest over the suspected marijuana.

"What you have to do as an officer is the assumption that it is marijuana," he said. "No different than when we have deals of cocaine. There's times when you make an arrest for cocaine, and you do the testing and it comes back that it's not cocaine, and then you have to deal with the charges appropriately after that."

"I expect my officers to address open marijuana use" as long as it remains illegal, he said. "Marijuana's not so innocent a drug that we hear so much about. But if we don't want officers to address misdemeanor marijuana use, make it legal."

North Carolina's marijuana laws are contradictory and confusing. Traditional marijuana — which is illegal in North Carolina — is defined as cannabis with more than .3% Delta 9 THC. That’s the active ingredient that produces mind-altering effects.

But intoxicating, smokable hemp products that get people high are being sold throughout the state, including all over Charlotte. When smoked, THC-A converts to traditional Delta 9 THC and is also an intoxicating substance. It’s become extremely popular in the last year, with stores selling it throughout the city. Some stores have billboards promoting it on Charlotte interstates. Along with another, similar product called "Delta-8," they're openly available across the city, from uptown to SouthPark to other neighborhoods.

Other products, like gummies infused with THC, are also sold openly throughout the city. Resident Culture Brewing even advertises and sells Cumulo, a beverage infused with Delta-9 THC, the same intoxicating compound found in cannabis.

Initial encounter

The videos show Anthony Lee and Pierre sitting at a bus stop on South Tryon and Arrowood.

Officers approach them and ask them what they are doing.

“What’s up guys? Y’all just hanging out?” the officer asks them. Lee says that they just got off work. Pierre then asks, “What did we do wrong?”

“It smells like you are smoking weed,” the officer says.

Lee then says “It’s the stuff from the store. It’s THC-A.”

The officer asks them again if they are “smoking weed.”

Lee says again that they bought it from a store.

The officer says “I can smell it coming from that,” pointing to their cigarette. Lee and Pierre say again that they got it from the “smoke shops.”

The officer then says, “OK, do me a favor and put your hand behind your back.”

The two then protest and shout, “What are you doing?”

Subsequent videos, including during questioning by police while the pair were in custody, show them trying to explain they were using a legal product purchased nearby.

"We got it from the smoke shop," Pierre tells a sergeant questioning her in an interview room.

"Marijuana is not legal," he says. "CBD is legal, but not marijuana."

"But why do they have it in smoke shops?" Pierre answers. "What is the point of a smoke shop?"

Pierre was waiting for the bus outside Bojangles restaurant at South Tryon and Arrowood. She was still wearing her red Bojangles shirt, and said she had just finished a work shift. She and Lee had recently moved from New York for a fresh start in lower-cost North Carolina, Pierre said.

"I don't have a car," she told the officer. "We work hard, bro. We have nothing. We're working our life from the ground up."

After the arrest, one of the videos shows an officer telling Lee that if they hadn't resisted, the pair would have likely just gotten a citation for marijuana possession.

"Most of us are, are pretty cool around here. We, we have a lot bigger stuff on our plate than petty marijuana," the officer says.

Crime lab report

As part of its release of body camera footage, CMPD released a report from its crime lab about testing it performed on Lee and Pierre’s cigarette and the substance that was in their bag.

The report said it contained THC and that it was marijuana.

But Phil Dixon with UNC’s School of Government, who has studied the state’s cannabis laws, said that a legal THC-A product will also show up as THC on a lab report.

“It’s not a matter of opinion. The presence of THC does not determine whether or not something is legal cannabis or illegal marijuana,” he said. “It’s possible the product can be hemp. I can’t be sure.”

WFAE asked CMPD whether its lab can differentiate between legal THC-A and illegal Delta 9 THC-A. The department didn’t respond.

The Mecklenburg District Attorney’s Office said two weeks ago it will drop all charges against Pierre and Lee. Police had charged them with not only marijuana possession, but also resisting arrest. Lee had also been charged with carrying a concealed handgun.

Merriweather, the district attorney, said more than a year ago his office won’t prosecute low-level drug possession cases.

The violent arrest

The footage also gives a clear picture of the arrest — which initially went viral based on a bystander's cellphone video — from several angles.

After police moved to arrest Lee, Pierre yells “What are you doing?” repeatedly. An officer pulls her away from the scene.

While that officer struggles with Pierre, his camera falls off and lands on the ground, but it continues recording.

It shows Lee flailing her arms at the officer, she appears hits him at least once in or near his face.

A cell phone video taken by a bystander from the Bojangles parking lot shows the officer hitting Pierre back with a punch to her face.

Several other officers then try to subdue Pierre, who is lying on the grass on her stomach. Her hands are under her body, and officers are trying to bring her hands to her back so they can handcuff her.

Pistone, who had been helping arrest Lee, then comes to help the officers who are struggling with Pierre.

CMPD says he hit her with seven knee strikes and 10 first strikes to the leg. The video shows him hitting her. CMPD said he was hitting a nerve to help subdue her.

The police said that state law allows them to use force when making an arrest when the person being arrested is not complying.

But the decision to make the arrest — and the ensuing struggle — did surprise one bystander, who was interviewed by officers on the scene immediately afterwards.

“Police officers weren’t giving them a whole lot of information,” the woman said. “If you are going to be arrested, tell me why. It’s wrong. Don’t put me in handcuffs without telling me why.”

The woman then said that Pierre was “not a large female” and that “what was done to her was completely uncalled for.”

The footage also includes body camera footage of officers talking about what happened after the arrests were made.

One officer asks about “the lady over here.”

Another officer says “I don’t know why they had to do that.”

The officers then remind one another that “they are on” — a reference to their body cameras still recording.

“We will talk about it in a minute,” he says.

Sign up for our weekly politics newsletter

Select Your Email Format

Steve Harrison is WFAE's politics and government reporter. Prior to joining WFAE, Steve worked at the Charlotte Observer, where he started on the business desk, then covered politics extensively as the Observer’s lead city government reporter. Steve also spent 10 years with the Miami Herald. His work has appeared in The Washington Post, the Sporting News and Sports Illustrated.
Ely Portillo has worked as a journalist in Charlotte for over a decade. Before joining WFAE, he worked at the UNC Charlotte Urban Institute and the Charlotte Observer.
More Stories