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Buzz About NYC Mayor's Move to Reduce Marijuana Arrests Is Way Overblown

Young people of color in New York City will still be unfairly persecuted, despite Bloomberg's much-heralded policy tweak.
 
 
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A young woman lights a marijuana joint in May 2012.

 

On Thursday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced a new policy for marijuana arrests in his State of the City address. Beginning next month, people found possessing marijuana will receive desk appearance tickets (DATs) instead of 24 hours in the central booking jail. While this is welcome news, it's not what it may seem.

News sources including Reuters, Associated Press and New York Magazine reported on the proposed change in marijuana arrest policy and even headlined it. The New York Daily News said it will "end the NYPD practice of locking up people who are busted with small amounts of marijuana." Some may conclude that now police will just give out paper tickets. That is not accurate.

Issuance of a DAT involves a full custodial arrest, handcuffs and a trip to the police station in a squad car, van or wagon. Sometimes the arrestees, who are mostly teenagers and young adults, are driven around for hours while the officers look for others to arrest.

At the police station the arrestees, 87% of them black and Latino, are fingerprinted, photographed and locked up in the precinct's holding pens. Their fingerprints and other data are sent to the state and FBI to be cross-checked for arrest warrants, as well as checked for local NYC warrants.

The most common arrest warrant is not for a crime, it's for having failed to pay the fine for a violation such as riding a bike on the sidewalk, possessing an unsealed alcohol container, or sitting on a park bench after hours. The NYPD gives out 600,000 of these summonses a year, primarily in the city's black and Latino precincts.

Ironically, people with no warrants, and who have never been arrested before, are often held longer than those with previous arrests because it takes longer to check the fingerprints and photographs of those without criminal records. The young people are locked up at the police station for at least two hours, and then, if there are no other offenses, are charged with criminal possession of marijuana and released with the mandatory court appearance ticket (DAT).

The obvious question is: why are these people being arrested and detained at all? They could be given non-criminal summonses on the street charging them with possession of small amounts of marijuana. This would save far more police time and public resources, and save the targeted young people from a stigmatizing criminal arrest record for drug possession. 

As New York Governor Andrew Cuomo put it in his State of the State address in January, "These arrests stigmatize, they criminalize, they create a permanent  record. It's not fair, it's not right, it must end." Gov. Cuomo has proposed changing state law just to stop the NYPD's marijuana arrests.  

It is worth remembering that most of Bloomberg's hundreds of thousands of marijuana possession arrests over the last 10 years were the result of stop-and-frisks in which police either illegally searched people by reaching into their pockets and belongings, or ordered them to empty their pockets (which is probably also illegal).

Middle-class and upper-class whites in New York City are rarely stopped and searched by the police, and therefore rarely arrested or even ticketed for marijuana possession. Yet young whites use marijuana at higher rates than young blacks and Latinos.

It's time for everyone in the city to be covered by the same marijuana possession policy long enjoyed by middle- and upper-class white New Yorkers: no arrests, no tickets and no fines.

Harry Levine is a sociology professor at Queens College, City University of New York, and director of the Marijuana Arrest Research Project.

 
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