Durham News

Self-Help Credit Union recommends Durham relax marijuana enforcement

Self-Help Credit Union has joined the call for reform in marijuana enforcement in Durham, citing an analysis that shows 82 percent of those charged are black. 

“A simple misdemeanor conviction costs families up to $375 in court fees and fines,” the community lending institution’s report states. “The cost in lost opportunities for education and employment are much higher, and grossly disproportionate to the infractions.”

The report recommends Durham adopt a “lowest law enforcement” enforcement policy. It wants the city to tie police funding to enforcement of other crimes, to expand an existing misdemeanor diversion program to include all adults, and to require the Police Department to submit semi-annual reports.

But Police Chief Jose Lopez said “marijuana has never been a priority” for the department. Marijuana arrests or citations typically occur in addition to other charges, he said.

“Right now I am dealing with young people who are getting killed in the city,” Lopez said. “That is my priority”

Lopez noted the Self-Help report focuses on 191 charges during an 18-month period and 148 charges during a later six-month period. Highlighting the disparity in the small numbers is “misleading,” he said.

The Police Department also was part of expanding misdemeanor diversion program, he added.

“I don’t know how much more aside from lending a blind eye that we could do in reference to this issue,” Lopez said. “My recommendation would be that people not smoke marijuana.”

Under state law, possession of up to half an ounce of marijuana is Class III misdemeanor. Possession of a half ounce to one-and-a-half ounces is a Class I misdemeanor. First-time offenders can face a fine but no jail time and can be eligible for a diversion program.

My recommendation would be that people not smoke marijuana.

Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez

In 2013, Mayor Bill Bell asked the city’s Human Relations Commission in 2013 to investigate police bias claims. The commission concluded that racial bias and profiling was present in the Police Department’s practices.

In response, City Manager Tom Bonfield recommended a review of misdemeanor marijuana arrests from Jan. 1 2013, to June 30, 2014. It found of the 22,693 charges filed during that period, 739 involved misdemeanor marijuana possession. Of those, 191 involved only that charge. Out of those individuals, 87 percent were black, 7 percent were white and 5 percent were Hispanic.

In addition, officials rolled out earlier this year the Durham Adult Misdemeanor Diversion Program for first-time, non-violent offenders ages 18 to 21. The program mirrors a similar program available to those ages 16 and 17.

The Self-Help report looks at the Durham report and an additional 148 cases in which people were solely charged with misdemeanor marijuana offenses or paraphernalia possession from February to August.

That examination found that 82 percent charged were black, 10 percent were white and 6 percent Hispanic.

Potential consequences of such charges include missed or lost work, denial of employment opportunities and possible loss of housing, the report states.

Some of the neighborhoods with the highest level of enforcement are the same neighborhoods where the organization and others are investing to fight poverty and help increase opportunities, the report states.

“Enforcement of simple marijuana possession is stripping money out of these communities,” the report states.

Self-Help has financed more than $279 million in Durham since 1984, primarily to foster homeownership, business development and nonprofit activity.

Four people, including Self-Help President Randy Chambers who wasn’t available for comment Tuesday, have signed up to speak on the topic at Thursday’s City Council work session.

Virginia Bridges: 919-829-8924, @virginiabridges