Columns » Trouble Hunter

It's time law enforcement got its priorities straight

Surviving the war...on drugs



Last March, 94-year-old Douglas Ponischil had his door broken down and home raided by CMPD.

He was arrested and charged with felony drug possession. He had no prior criminal record. According to his attorney, Chris Connelly, "This arrest occurred several weeks after marijuana had been mailed to his home on someone else's behalf. Instead of investigating whether this 94-year-old vet was perhaps being taken advantage of by others, law enforcement arrested him and put him in jail."

It's possible the weed didn't belong to Ponischil, but even if it did, can we all agree a 94-year-old man with no prior criminal record who wants to toke up — for mental or physical reasons — and purchase his supply in bulk is not a big danger to society?

Ponischil is a WWII veteran. He survived a German U-boat attack during the Battle of the Caribbean that left him stranded for days in the dangerous sea. Ponischil survived that like a champ and went on to help rid the world of Nazis. And now, at damn near a century old, all he (possibly) wants to do is sit back, smoke a J and (probably) reminisce on what a bad-ass American hero he is. That is, until our police forcefully raid his home, robbing him of that simple pleasure. Afterward, his mugshot is paraded around the media and his heroic name dragged through the mud before nary a conviction or shred of evidence is seen in a court of law.

This is the American drug war at its most ridiculous, and it's time for it to end.

According to NORML Charlotte, there were 5,617 marijuana-related arrests in 2014. That includes 4,057 arrests for misdemeanor possession (less than one-half ounce); 233 arrests for felony possession (up to 1.5 ounces); 112 arrests for possession of paraphernalia; and 1,215 arrests for offenses related to manufacturing, distribution and sales.

In a 2013 report, the ACLU estimated the low-level cost to the city per marijuana arrest to be $750. That estimate factored in police expenditures, judicial and legal expenses plus the cost of corrections services. Therefore, we can estimate marijuana arrests cost Charlotte around $4.3 million last year.

While we're wasting all those tax dollars that could be going towards something important (Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools could hire 107 new teachers at $40,000 per year with that money), other states are cashing in on legalization.

Our lawmakers have consistently shown they won't vote in favor of legalization, even for medicinal use. But if we're not ready at the state level for the monetary gains that would bring, let's at least cut our losses and stop spending millions on arrests at the city level. LLEP laws would make that possible. By making possession of marijuana the lowest law enforcement priority (LLEP) in Charlotte, our police may be less gung-ho to bust down doors for the sake of busting another plant smoker. LLEP ordinances have been passed in dozens of major cities across the U.S.; even in far less progressive cities than our own like Fayetteville, Arkansas.

The problem with LLEP ordinances is they're legally vulnerable and not necessarily enforceable. Hawaii's Supreme Court recently struck down a voter-approved county ordinance because it wasn't consistent with state cannabis laws.

"Although these ordinances may be largely symbolic, they do put the police and sheriffs on notice that the citizens of these communities prefer to have their tax dollars spent on arresting and convicting crimes against people and property rather than on arresting people for possession of marijuana," Ann Caughran of NORML Charlotte says.

Hawaii County's ordinance contained three provisions: that enforcement of cannabis-related laws be the lowest priority for county agencies, that local law enforcement and prosecutors may not acept commissioning by federal agencies to enforce cannabis laws and that the county can't accept funding issued to enforce those laws.

Other LLEP ordinances are written with similar specifications that would prevent arrests like Ponischil's. Speaking of Ponischil, he was due for his first appearance in court on the week of July 4th. Prosecutors dismissed his case before then, making the time and money spent on the raid a waste. His dismissal cited the "interest of justice."

In the interest of justice, it's time to make cases like his obsolete. And in North Carolina, it can start with the Queen City.

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