During the past six months in Orange County, 21 out of 33 people charged with low-level marijuana possession were black, said Ian Mance, an attorney at the Southern Coalition for Social Justice. Mance also said for all marijuana-related charges, 41 out of 99 offenders were black.
In Orange County, black people only make up 11.9 percent of the total population, according to the 2010 census.
An arrest could mean losing a job, housing or federal financial aid for college. In 2010, more than half of drug arrests in North Carolina were for marijuana possession, which cost the state almost $55 million to enforce, according to the ACLU report.
“Our current marijuana laws make no sense,” Meno said. “We are criminalizing numerous individuals for using a substance that is less harmful than alcohol and that most Americans believe should be legal.”
Legalization of marijuana use is favored by 53 percent of Americans, according to a March 2015 survey from Pew Research Center.
But marijuana use is not the sole issue — people of color are also disproportionately arrested for selling and manufacturing marijuana compared to white people. In North Carolina, more than twice as many black people were arrested for marijuana sales or manufacturing than white people.
“People of color and poor communities tend to be targeted much more than more affluent communities, despite the fact that usage is about the same,” said Morgan Fox, spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, a D.C. based lobbying organization.
Richard Wright, chair of the Criminal Justice and Criminology Department at Georgia State University, is an expert on drug dealers. His recent research focused on how the code of street dealing differs from suburban drug dealing.
He said suburban drug dealers he interviewed in Atlanta, most of them white teens, were more afraid of their parents than of law enforcement.
“They weren’t too worried about going to jail because they were young,” Wright said. “This would be a first time offense, and they came from families with the wherewithal to go to court.
“The urban dealers (in St. Louis), the minority dealers, were used to street sweeps and sting operations...whereas these were wholly unknown in the neighborhood in Atlanta.”
Durham Police Department spokesman Wil Glenn said they are aware of the racial disparities between black and white people arrested for marijuana.
He attributes some of the disparity to the higher police presence in areas where they receive a lot of 911 calls, which are often minority neighborhoods.
“We answer the calls as they come to us,” Glenn said. “We deploy our workforce in areas where they’re needed most.”
Lt. Josh Mecimore of the Chapel Hill Police Department said that marijuana charges are typically related to other actions.
“We might get a suspicious vehicle call which leads to a marijuana charge,” Mecimore said.
But Department of Justice data shows that black people are also disproportionately likely to get pulled over for traffic stops.
Some activists argue that the issue is systemic.
“Any time there is a transgression, there is a racial disparity,” said Colorado ACLU spokesman John Krieger.
In states like Colorado, Oregon and Washington, legislatures removed marijuana possession from the list of transgressions.
Colorado’s legalization amendment regulates marijuana much like alcohol consumption — use is still illegal for those under 21, as is driving while impaired.
The state generated $44 million in marijuana tax revenue in 2014.
“That was money going to the underground market and cartels,” said lawyer Brian Vicente, who helped write the amendment. He also said youth consumption has gone down.
“Marijuana prohibition was simply a failed policy. It was very costly, and it was having a big impact on people’s lives in terms of sending them to jail and giving them criminal records,” Vicente said. “And it didn’t really seem to be accomplishing any goals to reduce use of marijuana.”
But larger offenses related to marijuana are still affecting black people more than white people.
“Those offenses that would lead to a prison sentence didn’t change,” Krieger said.
In the absence of state and national legalization, the ACLU is advocating for individual police departments to consider marijuana possession the “lowest-level priority.”
“Most North Carolinians would agree that law enforcement officers have better things to do,” Meno said.
Mecimore said that the Chapel Hill Police Department does not necessarily prioritize one crime over another — they enforce what the State Legislature tells them.
However, he said that the small number of overall marijuana offenders the department arrested last year compared to overall arrests suggests that it is a low priority.
Percy Crutchfield, chief of the Pittsboro Police Department, said they don’t have a scale for how to prioritize crimes.
“It is still a crime,” Crutchfield said. “An officer does have discretion in certain cases, but it is a violation of the North Carolina Controlled Substances Act.”
At the federal level, President Barack Obama addressed the war on drugs, as well as the phenomenon of “missing” minority men, when he commuted the prison sentences of 46 non-violent drug offenders in July.
But those who advocate for drug law reform, like Meno, argue that 46 is minuscule compared to the hundreds of thousands of people arrested for marijuana possession each year.
Meno said the next step in North Carolina is medical marijuana reform.
Then, tackling decriminalization and trading in wasted police resources for tax revenue.
“In Colorado, the sky has not fallen,” Meno said.