A continued push by community groups could make the Durham the first city in North Carolina to formally make misdemeanor marijuana enforcement its police force’s lowest priority.
Self-Help Credit Union President Randy Chambers and members of the Fostering Alternatives Drug Enforcement (FADE) Coalition met with City Council members and others last week to discuss a draft ordinance. The groups plan to bring an official request to a council work session in late August or in September.
The draft ordinance allows the city to continue enforcing state law, while deprioritizing the enforcement of laws relating to the possession of less than half an ounce of marijuana or paraphernalia.
The measures included citing, but not arresting, individuals for misdemeanor possession, and not participating in any federal programs or accepting any grants that target such crimes.
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The FADE Coalition has been recommending since 2013 that the city make marijuana its lowest law-enforcement priority.
In November Self-Help Credit Union joined the call, citing an analysis that shows 82 percent of those charged are black.
At the time, then 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.
Chambers said last week that their research didn’t support that statement.
Chief C.J. Davis, who started in June, said the department will evaluate the proposed ordinance.
“Enforcement of misdemeanor marijuana offenses is not a priority for the Durham Police Department,” she said. “We are heavily focused on curtailing the violent crime happening in our neighborhoods.”
Around March, FADE representatives met with Durham City Manager Tom Bonfield, who asked them to simplify the proposed ordinance, Chambers said.
Last week, they set three different meetings times and asked City Council members to attend. Marijuana enforcement is used by law enforcement every day as a threat to young people in the community who don’t know the law, said Nia Wilson, executive director of community organizing nonprofit SpiritHouse.
“We are hoping by moving something like this forward, with the chief’s buy-in, that it will just stop,” Wilson said. “And that law enforcement will be focused on other things that are needed in the community.”
A majority of City Council members appear to be seriously considering the latest request.
Councilwoman Jillian Johnson mentioned this issue in her successful campaign to win her City Council seat in November.
Steve Schewel and Don Moffitt expressed support for the effort, with the caveat that they want to hear from Davis and City Attorney Patrick Baker.
“I think we ought to do it,” Schewel said. “I think we ought to do it soon.”
Mayor Bill Bell and Charlie Reece said they are supportive, but said there are questions on whether the council has the authority to make those kinds of decisions for the Police Department.
“I support the goal,” Reece said. “I don’t know if we can do the things that they ask us to do.”
Councilwoman Core Cole-McFadden said she wasn’t sure whether an ordinance was the best way to handle the issue versus a more informal Police Department policy.
Cole-McFadden and others also expressed concern about whether the N.C. General Assembly might respond with legislation barring them from taking such as action.
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.