Across the nation, cities and states are becoming more lenient toward marijuana.
Besides Alaska, Colorado, Oregon and Washington legalizing marijuana, numerous other cities have decriminalized it: Miami, New York and Philadelphia.
Charlotte is following, though quietly. CMPD hasn’t made any public pronouncement that its officers are planning to make fewer marijuana arrests, but there has been a shift.
In 2012, nearly 40 percent of all charges for possessing less than a half-ounce of marijuana ended in arrest.
For the first 11 months of 2015 that fell to 22 percent. The arrest rate fell for all races and ethnic groups.
But there is still a huge disparity in terms of who gets arrested and who gets a citation.
In 2014, 451 blacks were arrested compared with 36 whites. For the first 11 months of 2015, 311 blacks were arrested compared with 28 whites.
Those cases don’t include people with other charges, including possessing drug paraphernalia.
The District Attorney’s Office said it’s tough to prosecute marijuana possession cases.
“They are incredibly difficult to get juries to care about,” said Sheena Gatehouse, the misdemeanor unit chief for the District Attorney’s Office. “With the movement nationwide toward legalization in some states, the public has been desensitized.”
In 2011, the General Assembly passed the Justice Reinvestment Act, which gave lenience to people arrested for the first time for possession of marijuana and other drugs. If someone agrees to attend a state-approved anti-drug class, charges are dropped and their records expunged.
But for other cases, prosecutors are struggling.
“To spend three or four days of a jury’s time, and all the court resources, and what we hear from (jurors) is, ‘Really, aren’t there better things we could spend our time doing?’” Gatehouse said.
The City Council couldn’t completely decriminalize or legalize marijuana if it wanted; that power resides only with the General Assembly.
But council members can direct its police officers on whether they want marijuana possession to be a priority. They can also direct CMPD on whether to write citations or make arrests.
As part of its civil rights resolution, for instance, council members directed police not to ask people about their immigration status.
There hasn’t been any discussion about changing CMPD priorities on drug enforcement.
Keith Caughran has started a Charlotte chapter of the group NORML, which lobbies to make marijuana laws more lenient.
Caughran said Charlotte should make marijuana enforcement one of its lowest priorities.
“It’s too much paperwork,” he said. “It’s ridiculous officers are spending their time on this (today).”