Self-Help Shares

Dealing with Racial Disparities in Marijuana Enforcement

By Mary
  | Dec 03, 2015

Justice - police report - 2Recently Self-Help issued a report on law enforcement of minor marijuana infractions in Durham, NC. While recreational use of marijuana is comparable among blacks and whites, our research shows that African Americans account for 82% of Durham's law enforcement related to marijuana misdemeanors.

This topic is outside our usual scope, but the findings are very relevant to our work. While we and other partners are working closely with the City of Durham to build more opportunities for families in lower-income areas, charges for minor marijuana infractions are draining money from these same families and posing unnecessary roadblocks to education, housing and jobs.

Local advocates such as FADE (Fostering Alternatives to Drug Enforcement) had called attention to these disparities before. We decided to take a look at the numbers to see if these disparities were persisting.

We presented our report to the Durham City Council in November, “Dealing with Marijuana Misdemeanors in Durham: Racial Disparities Undercut the City’s Progress.”  Our analysis shows that disparities have indeed persisted and they are costly.  Here are a few highlights:

  • African Americans account for more than 80% of all misdemeanor marijuana charges in Durham, compared to 10% for whites.
  • African Americans age 25 and under represent about 15% of Durham’s population, yet this group represents 46% of misdemeanor marijuana charges.
  • A simple misdemeanor conviction costs families up to $374 in court fees and fines. The costs in lost opportunities for education and employment can be much higher, and are grossly disproportionate to the infractions.

It’s a fair question to ask whether these disparities are the result of more police calls to the neighborhoods affected. The answer is no. The data show that only a small share—12%--of these charges were the result of a citizen complaint. More typically, the charges were the result of police-initiated actions—most often, a vehicle stop.

Randy Chambers, President of Self-Help Credit Union, said, “Not only is this type of skewed enforcement fundamentally unfair, it comes at a high price. While we and many other organizations and the city itself are investing in Durham’s lower-income neighborhoods, an intense focus on misdemeanors in these same areas undermines our work and blocks too many young people from pursuing a better future.”

In our report, we offer several simple policy recommendations to remedy these enforcement disparities. Most importantly, we are asking the Durham City Council to adopt a policy that FADE has recommended previously: make misdemeanor marijuana violations the lowest priority for Durham law enforcement. This policy is already effective in a number of cities across the nation, and would also follow Greensboro, NC’s recent lead in adjusting policing practices that have a disparate impact on people of color.

You can find a more complete summary in our press release or read the entire report.


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