Local News

Communities look to weed out marijuana enforcement from police priorities

Posted October 3, 2016 6:14 p.m. EDT
Updated October 3, 2016 11:25 p.m. EDT

— Community groups across the country are urging police departments to de-prioritize marijuana enforcement, arguing that pursuing criminal charges for small amounts of the drug wastes both taxpayers' money and law enforcement resources and disproportionately targets blacks.

The Durham City Council, for example, recently asked City Manager Tom Bonfield and Police Chief C.J. Davis to look at ways to pull back on enforcement for small amounts of marijuana, such as citing people instead of arresting them and levying marijuana charges only when a a person is being investigated for other crimes. Bonfield and Davis said Monday that said they have just started looking at the issue and aren't ready to discuss how it may be implemented.

"Our officers have more important things to focus on. There are more genuine threats to public safety," said Mike Meno, a spokesman for the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.

In addition to using limited resources, Meno said, marijuana enforcement antagonizes communities, especially black neighborhoods. About 80 percent of people charged with marijuana possession are black, while estimates of marijuana usage are evenly divided along racial lines.

"The aggressive enforcement of marijuana laws disproportionately targets people of color, it harms police and community relations and it leaves many people who have been arrested with even tiny amounts of marijuana with a lifetime of consequences," Meno said.

Horace McNeill knows that all too well. In March, he was riding in a car that was stopped by police in Pinehurst.

"We were suspicious for driving into town at 10:30 at night," McNeill said.

Police found a small amount of marijuana in the car. McNeill was arrested and convicted. Now, he can't get a job, which he said is frustrating.

"It's also important to remember the collateral consequences that even one arrest for a small amount of marijuana can have," Meno said.

The Police Accountability Community Task Force, a community group in Raleigh, this summer asked that Raleigh police put a lower emphasis on marijuana enforcement to help improve community relations. Raleigh officials said that would require discussions with state lawmakers, the Raleigh City Council and Wake County District Attorney Lorrin Freeman.

Freeman said Monday that she is not inclined to curtail officers' discretion when it comes to laws that are on the books, but she is willing to look at the issue.

"They're targeting a certain demographic, and it's not justice in my eyes," Raleigh resident Tim James said.

"We hope they pay attention to what's happening in Durham," Meno said of Raleigh officials.