With a push by two local organizations, Durham could become the first city in the state to officially make misdemeanor marijuana violations a low enforcement priority.
The Fostering Alternatives Drug Enforcement (FADE) Coalition has been pushing elected leaders to take formal steps for years. In November Self-Help Credit Union joined the call, citing an analysis that shows 82 percent of those charged are black.
Now the organizations are promoting a local ordinance that lets the city continue enforcing state law, while deprioritizing the enforcement of laws relating to the possession of less than half an ounce of marijuana or paraphernalia. Organizers plan to bring the issue up again at a City Council work session this month.
City Council members say they are supportive, but have expressed concern about whether they have the authority to set such a priority for the Police Department and whether the N.C. General Assembly might respond with legislation barring them from taking such as action.
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Police Chief C.J. Davis, who started in June, said the department will evaluate the proposed ordinance, but enforcement of misdemeanor marijuana offenses already is not a priority for the department.
We sat down with Nia Wilson, executive director of community organizing nonprofit SpiritHouse, which is part of the FADE Coalition, and Self-Help Credit Union President Randy Chambers to ask them why they are pushing for the ordinance.
Q: Why is it important to take these steps to make misdemeanor marijuana enforcement a lower priority?
Wilson: From the perspective of the Spirit House and the FADE Coalition, our conversations are around doing work to prevent people from ever having to begin any kind of process with the criminal justice system, like what are the things we can do to prevent people from getting criminal records and being connected to the criminal justice system.
For over 40 years, the war on drugs has been the catalyst for people being arrested and being incarcerated. And the war on drugs has not actually successfully done anything to end drug addiction in this country. Things have not gotten better since this began. We believe the issues around drugs and drug use are much more of public health issue than they are a criminal justice issue. We felt like beginning with marijuana enforcement as a low-level priority would be the thing to do. And in these meetings and conversations that we were having, what also then became very apparent was something that we already knew, which was the disparate marijuana enforcement here in Durham and how that impacts a 19-year-old black kid who lives in East Durham, as opposed to a 19-year-old white kid who lives on Duke’s campus.
Q: What is Self-Help’s role in the process?
Chambers: Our role has really been about synthesizing some of the data, and I think sharing with the city’s leadership that it is social justice issue, but it is also an economic justice issue. If you live in a neighborhood where there is serious crime going on, you want police going there. If you live in a neighborhood where kids happen to be smoking marijuana behind a closed door, and there’s a bunch of police cars on the street, it changes the dynamic of that neighborhood.
Every time a siren goes down my block, I look out the window and see what’s going on. I can’t imagine that going on day after day. I think for us it was to bring more of our data analysis lens to the issue, and then bring a lens that this is not just a social justice issue, this is a quality of life, and economic justice issue in low-income communities.
Q: What is your response to comments, such as the one made by former Police Chief Jose Lopez, who said people just shouldn’t smoke marijuana?
Wilson: That is more of a personal choice. The thing we are talking about is disparate enforcement of the law. And so you can say you just shouldn’t smoke marijuana and see that as the answer to some of the issues and concerns that we have, but when we are talking about disparate enforcement in Durham, that is the conversation that we want to have. You can say that about a 19-year-old in East Durham. And you can say that about a 19-year-old on Duke’s campus. The reality is that a 19-year-old on Duke’s campus gets the benefit of having drug classes and having conversation and is encouraged to make different choices and it doesn’t impact them for the rest of their life.
(Meanwhile, Wilson said in response to another question, misdemeanor charges can affect the black teenager for the rest of his life, hurting his chances to go to college, get loans and find jobs.)
Chambers: Or a 45-year-old father of two who is smoking marijuana in his back yard in Forest Hills or down by Southpoint. They don’t have the slightest fear that the police are going to show up. Roughly 45 percent of the population in Durham is African American. And roughly 45 percent is white. And 85 plus percent of the arrests for minor marijuana possession are African Americans. I actually personally agree with Lopez. I think that is fine to say don’t smoke marijuana. But say that in Trinity Park, and south Durham, and in American Village, the same that you say it on Driver Street.
Q: So should police step up enforcement in those affluent areas?
Chambers: No. The issue of violence in Durham is a really serious issue. I would like as a taxpayer, and from Self-Help’s perspective as an organization that is investing in trying to build the tax base and the economic vitality in Durham, I would like for us to find a way to deal with the really serious surge in violent crime we are experiencing right now.
Q: Some City Council members have said they are not sure whether they should pass an ordinance or take a more informal stance. What is your opinion on the city taking an informal stance?
Chambers: I do think public bodies have an obligation to represent the interest of the community, and the community is saying enough is enough. It is time for our elected leaders to take a stand. If the data showed that it wasn’t a problem, we wouldn’t be asking for action. But the data shows that police are not. Chief Lopez did say, “ e tell our officers that this is not a priority,” but the data doesn’t show that.
Q: Some people describe marijuana as a gateway drug, and the say it will has a negative health affect.
Wilson: You are still talking about a public health concern. Even if that is the argument, we are talking about a public health concern, and it should be dealt with in that way. If we see it as a public health concern, then let’s put our resources into dealing with it was a public health issue.
About the proposed ordinance:
The proposed draft discussion ordinance includes the:
▪ The city not accepting or renewing federal law enforcement programs, or related grants, if the primary intent of the program is for the investigation, citation, arrest or seizure of property for misdemeanor marijuana possession.
▪ Officers shall only investigate, cite, arrest, prosecute or seize property in connection to a misdemeanor marijuana offense on a residential property in response to a citizen complaint (as opposed to an officer initiating such action). If an officer receives a complaint of a marijuana offense on residential property, “the officer shall attempt to contact the property owner of subject of the complaint to issue a verbal warning.”
▪ Officers should issue a citation instead of marking an arrest in a misdemeanor marijuana offense. In general, officers have discretion to either issue a citation or make an arrest.
▪ The Police Department wouldn’t fund any programs to buy misdemeanor amounts of marijuana in order to make an arrest.
▪ The Police Department would submit semi-annual written reports on the implementation of the ordinance to the city manager, City Council and Civilian Police Review Board.
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