On Thursday afternoon, during its work session, the Durham City Council unanimously voted to allow the city manager to work with the Durham Police Department to figure out how to have the department issue citations and warnings for low-level marijuana offenses instead of arresting individuals.
The directive came after Randy Chambers, the president of Self-Help Credit Union; David Hall, an attorney with the Southern Coalition for Social Justice; and resident Andrea Hudson of SpiritHouse came to the council to once again advocate for deprioritizing low-level marijuana enforcement.
Chambers told the council that, after looking at data on marijuana arrests from 2013 to 2015, "the numbers continuing to be troubling."
"Approximately seventy-nine percent of all misdemeanor marijuana enforcement violations are for African-American males between the ages of sixteen and thirty-four," Chambers said. "Equally disturbing is how those charges are treated. Only one quarter of the folks charged with this misdemeanor in 2015 were issued a citation. Meaning the other three quarters were taken in and arrested."
Chambers said Durham is at a crossroads: "We have an opportunity to show that we really can commit to strong community-police relations."
Why is it important to issue a citation or warning instead of arresting someone for misdemeanor marijuana offenses? For starters, these offenses deal with minuscule amounts of pot—between half an ounce and 1.5 ounces.
(For less than a half ounce, the cops won’t take you in.)
But by arresting someone for a minor possession charge you're setting them up for a lifetime of difficulties. Being arrested means you go to jail, which means you need to post bail to get out. If you have a $1,000 bond, you have to pay 15 percent of that. In some cases, the bail is higher, individuals can't pay it, and thus they're forced to stay in jail without having been convicted of anything. This, in turn, can provide an incentive to plead guilty.
"We can't change that it's a misdemeanor or how the crime is seen in court. But what we're talking about is the treatment of the person by officers in the field," said council member Don Moffitt.
There was some concern that enacting an ordinance on marijuana enforcement would put the council at risk of being sued, much like the the Fayetteville City Council was four years ago when it wanted to make changes to the way the police conducted consent searches. In that case, the police union filed a lawsuit, and a judge granted a restraining order that prevented the city from moving forward.
Because of that, council member Charlie Reece suggested that city manager Tom Bonfield and police chief C.J. Davis sit down together and figure out what the police department is amenable to. If the chief and manager can't determine a course of action, the city council will take it up again.
"The department has said, for a long time, certainly in the last couple of years, that low-level marijuana enforcement is a low priority," said council member Steve Schewel. "But I think the problem with that is the statistics [Chambers] is citing. Even though I believe for the people administering the department, it is a low priority, I don't think that's actually the effect that we see.
"I think about all of us, and the disproportionate effect this has had on young African-American males,” Schewel continued. “I look out in this crowd and I see a lot of white people. I smoked a lot of marijuana when I was young, and I bet a lot of you all did, too. But we did not face these [consequences]."