Blacks bear brunt of marijuana enforcement, group says

Jan. 14, 2014 @ 10:07 PM

City police under two different chiefs have been far more prone to arrests blacks than whites for marijuana, despite roughly equivalent usage patterns across ethnic groups.

That was the argument a group that calls itself the FADE Coalition – Fostering Alternatives to Drug Enforcement – made in the data it gave the city’s Human Relations Commission on Tuesday.

FADE spokesman Daryl Atkinson urged the commission to recommend to elected officials making marijuana enforcement the Police Department’s lowest priority, to free up resources for other needs and avoid saddling youngsters with criminal records.

“We’re criminalizing our kids,” he said, noting that North Carolina sanctions the prosecution of 16- and 17-year juveniles as adults. “And then we scratch our heads about why they’re driven back into an underground economy.”

Tuesday’s presentation was the first in a series to the commission that will play out over the next few weeks as the advisory panel hears from groups critical of the Durham Police Department’s enforcement practices.

The Human Relations Commission is acting at the behest of the City Council, following complaints elected officials received last summer about alleged racial profiling and the Police Department’s handling of a spate of officer-involved shootings.

It was clear from the handling of presentation that FADE views a de-emphasis on marijuana enforcement as the first step in an abandonment of the so-called “War on Drugs.”

Atkinson screened for commission members a truncated version of the documentary “The House I Live In,” which is sharply critical of the way authorities across the country target drugs like cocaine and crack.

The group’s focus on marijuana, however, comes as a number of states outside the South move to loosen laws against the drug. Two, Washington and Colorado, have legalized it for recreational use.

One handout to the commission indicated that from 2003 to 2007, about 72 percent of those arrested in Durham County for marijuana possession were black. The period covers the reign of former Police Chief Steve Chalmers.

Another focusing strictly on the city department’s practices from 2007 to 2011 indicated that its marijuana-possession arrests most often occurred in center-city neighborhoods, basically the area north of the Martin Luther King Jr. Parkway and south of the Eno River.

The two places with the highest percentages included one in north Durham near Durham Regional Hospital, and another just east of downtown corresponding roughly to the area targeted by the Police Department’s “Operation Bull’s Eye.”

Bull’s Eye was a Chalmers initiative that continued under the current chief, Jose Lopez. It targeted an area that police said was associated with a disproportionate amount of gun violence.

The 2007-11 numbers suggested marijuana-possession busts were relatively rare, with 3,557 occurring over the five years. The two areas with the highest percentages of busts stood out for having as few as 148 and as many as 256.

But outside of the center city, even in areas policed exclusively by city cops, marijuana busts were even rarer. Most places saw fewer than 66 over five years.

Commission members appeared receptive to the de-emphasis proposal, with panel Chairman Ricky Hart suggesting a couple times that one way to implement it would be to secure the cooperation of Durham’s district attorney.

But Atkinson argued that it’d be better to get police to go along, given their status as a person’s likely first point of contact with the criminal justice system.