The robbers herded Jared Bolli, his fiancee, friends and two children into the kitchen of his townhouse near Pineville, binding some with duct tape. Worried about an attack, they shot and injured his pit bull mix.
They then searched for the two things they were told would be in the home: cash and a safe where Bolli kept his stash of marijuana.
Bolli worked part time as a cook at a steakhouse, but friends and acquaintances knew him as a small-time marijuana dealer.
The thieves found what they were looking for: as much as $500 in cash and some drugs. But as they began to head out the door, prosecutors say, Bolli picked up an exercise weight and tried to hit one of the robbers, Michael King.
King turned a split second before Bolli could land the blow, and shot him dead in the living room.
After the killing, the thieves sped off in a minivan. They got away with 2 ounces of marijuana, which they split. It was enough for about one joint apiece. King and the other robbers were arrested in the ensuing days. All have pleaded guilty or been convicted.
As marijuana becomes the drug of choice for many users, police and prosecutors say they are seeing larger numbers of homicides related to small, personal-use amounts of the drug. They investigated six such homicides in 2013, more than all other drug-related homicides combined. In 2012, they investigated six homicides related to all drugs.
“Marijuana is making its return,” said Charlotte-Mecklenburg police Chief Rodney Monroe. “… People are saying it’s a harmless drug but it’s not, when you’ve got people robbing buyers and shooting dealers.”
Police say they don’t have long-term numbers for homicides connected to the marijuana trade, but arrests for marijuana-related offenses have increased in four of the past five years, according to CMPD data.
Prosecutors said they’re trying to correct a “public misunderstanding.”
“What we’re seeing is that young people are being killed over nickel-and-dime transactions over marijuana,” said Assistant District Attorney Bill Stetzer, who oversees homicide prosecutions. “And we’re seeing it at a level that has gotten noticed by both the CMPD and the District Attorney’s Office.”
Tougher laws, changing attitudes
Monroe said marijuana “is becoming the drug of choice,” as people substitute it for other drugs.
Police, prosecutors and criminologists attribute the rise to more liberal attitudes about marijuana use, the decriminalization of the drug in some states and a criminal-justice system that metes out lighter sentences for marijuana possession than for other drugs.
In North Carolina, possession of the smallest amount of marijuana is a misdemeanor, punishable by a $200 fine. But possession of any amount of cocaine in North Carolina is a felony.
The finer points of drug laws have not escaped drug dealers, said CMPD Capt. Cecil Brisbon, who heads the department’s homicide unit.
“If you’ve got a small amount of marijuana and you know it’s not a felony, you’re not worried about getting arrested for that,” Brisbon said. “But you would worry about getting arrested for any amount of cocaine.”
Use is also up among youth. In the 2010 Youth Drug survey, 12 percent of all students admitted to using marijuana in the past 30 days, the highest ratio in the study’s history. And 20.3 percent of high school student admitted to using marijuana in the past 30 days.
Paul Friday, the head of the criminology department at UNC Charlotte, has been conducting urine tests of recent Mecklenburg jail inmates since 2003. His research found that on any given day, roughly two-thirds of all inmates have ingested a drug of some sort. In 2011, of those who tested positive, nearly half tested positive for marijuana, more than every other drug combined. Cocaine use declined among jail inmates during that time.
To reach a wider audience, marijuana growers have bred more potent versions of the drug and come up with distinct varieties.
One site that targets marijuana aficionados offers reviews of more than 500 types of the drugs – everything from Abra Cadabra to Yuckleberry Yow.
Gary McFadden, a retired homicide detective, said the general public’s perception on marijuana has changed – there are users of all races and socioeconomic levels.
“You would not believe the people who smoke this,” McFadden said. “People with legitimate jobs. These are people who live in places like SouthPark and say, ‘Hey, I just need a little something for the weekend.’ ”