Community groups nationwide are urging police departments to de-prioritize marijuana enforcement, arguing that criminal charges for small amounts of the drug cause long-lasting damage that disproportionately affects people of color.
More than a dozen cities and counties across America have convinced local law enforcement to enact Lowest Law Enforcement Policies (LLEPs) that de-prioritize enforcement of marijuana possession laws under the area’s jurisdiction, according to advocacy group the Marijuana Policy Project. These lowest priority initiatives are largely symbolic, but are meant to convey a relaxed public outlook on small quantities of the drug to the legislators in the general assembly.
"Our officers have more important things to focus on. There are more genuine threats to public safety" Mike Meno, a spokesman for the North Carolina chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) and supporter of LLEPs, told WRAL.
Meno also claims marijuana enforcement poses a threat to the future safety of black neighborhoods, saying, "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."
A recent report by the ACLU revealed that marijuana use is roughly equal among racial groups in America, but black Americans are almost four times more likely to be arrested for possession than white Americans. Nia Wilson, executive director of North Carolina cultural arts organization SpiritHouse, saw evidence of these statistics in her hometown while organizing local action for an LLEP. In an interview with The News & Observer, she said:
“In these meetings and conversations that we were having, what [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.”
“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,” she added.
The continued push by community groups such as SpiritHouse could make Durham the first city in North Carolina with an LLEP, as the Durham Police Department begins their review of a proposed draft ordinance to de-prioritize marijuana enforcement in October 2016.
The ordinance measures include citing individuals for misdemeanor possession, in place of making arrests, and not participating in any federal programs or grants targeting such crime.
“Enforcement of misdemeanor marijuana offenses is not a priority for the Durham Police Department,” C.J. Davis, chief of the Durham Police Department told The News & Observer. “We are heavily focused on curtailing the violent crime happening in our neighborhoods.”