Is NYC the Marijuana Arrest Capital of the World?
Michael Bloomberg has made New York City “The Marijuana Arrest Capitol of the World” through his support of illegal tactics which allow cops to stop and frisk anyone they see fit. On Wednesday, May 25, a broad coalition of social advocacy groups, supporters and City Councilmembers congregated around the corner from the Mayor’s Upper East Side to deliver him a mock award for his efforts.
Voices Of Community Activists & Leaders (VOCAL-NY), the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives (IJJRA), and the Drug Policy Alliance organized the action in response to illegal stop-and-frisk procedures that contribute to mass arrests of Black and Latino youths for small amounts of marijuana, the possession of which was decriminalized in 1977. Protesters called this policy unjust and highlighted the racial and socio-economic disparity in the arrests, the vast majority of which are Blacks and Latinos from low-income neighborhoods.
Together with spokesmen from NORML, the protesters gathered on the sidewalk and rode out the heat under the shade of Central Park’s trees, expressing their outrage at Mayor Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly‘s injurious and racist corruption of the law. Many of the protesters were Blacks and Latinos from low-income neighborhoods, many of whom had been arrested themselves.
Organizers called out Bloomberg’s hypocrisy, noting that when Bloomberg ran for Mayor in 2001, he admitted to having smoked and enjoyed marijuana, but continues to support using loopholes in the stop-and-frisk law to orchestrate mass arrests of young people of color for small amounts of marijuana. Under Mayor Bloomberg, marijuana arrests have surpassed those under Mayors Koch, Dinkins, and Giuliani combined. Despite a tight budget and the stripping of federally funded social programs and education, the city pumped $75 million into arresting more than 50,000 people for small amounts of marijuana last year.
Spokesman for the Drug Policy Alliance Tony Newman called the arrests “a numbers game” that allows officers to clock in overtime and make easy, low-level arrests to add to the war on drug statistics.
The disparity of arrests by race and socioeconomic status is alarming. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, Blacks and Latinos make up 86% of marijuana arrests in New York City, despite whites use of the drug at a higher rate. Last year, in Councilwoman Melissa Mark Viverito’s Precinct 25 (East Harlem), police arrested 1,069 people for marijuana, while only 34 were arrested in Mayor Bloomberg’s neighborhood, Precinct 19 (Upper East Side), despite the neighborhood (and Central Park’s) reputation for being a smoke-spot.
Mark-Viverito, who attended the rally, said she is committed to revisiting the unjust policy. “When you see the disparity in numbers of people who are being arrested, it’s really an unjust policy and a corruption of the original intent of the law,” she said. “That law was intended to decriminalize marijuana, and they have been corrupting it and incarcerating our kids, criminalizing our young people.”
Speaking at the action on behalf of VOCAL-NY, Bobby Tolbert painted a picture of the policy to attendees and passers-by. “The kids are in the corner. One of them has a bag of his weed in his pocket. Police officer pulls up and says up against the wall. Empty your pockets,” Tolbert said. “Now, it is against the law to openly display marijuana when it is burning or in open display, but if police stop you and ask you to open your pocket, once that bag of weed falls out your pocket that is open display and you are subject to arrest.”
While The Fourth Amendment protects against unreasonable search and seizure, what is considered “unreasonable” has been historically debated. In 1986, the Supreme Court ruled in Terry v. Ohio that that an officer may stop and detain a person when “specific and articulable facts” grant the officer reasonable suspicion of criminal behavior. The Court also stated that an officer may only frisk or pat down the person when the officer has reasonable suspicion this person is armed. Therefore, the Terry Frisk, as it is often called, is limited to patting down for weapons and must be confined in use to discover guns, knives, etc. – not just a little bit of pot.
For the NYPD, however, the Terry Frisk is used to expose a loophole in the decriminalization of marijuana. While possession of less than 25 grams warrants a citation and fine of $100 for a first-time offender, pot that is burning or “in public view” is a Class B misdemeanor offense, which warrants not only a much higher fine but a handcuffed trip to jail. There, offenders are officially criminalized, finger-printed and put into the system. For police officers, having youths in the system can be beneficial, but for youths, it jeopardizes their future. Those arrested lose eligibility for federal grants and loans, as well as housing.
Criminalization is also a roadblock to career opportunities. Professor of Sociology at City University of New York Harry Levine said that the increasing ease of obtaining criminal records on the Internet makes youth criminalization an “enormous obstacle that limits life chances” and called the policy “the NYPD head start to prison program.” With youths comprising 70% of marijuana arrests, the policy is detrimental to the upward mobility of low-income youths of color.
Even if the NYPD’s stop and frisk procedures were deemed reasonable, their practice of “Equal Protection” under the Fourteenth Amendment may still be questionably enforced. In Whren v. U.S., the Supreme Court declared that “the Constitution prohibits selective enforcement of the law based on considerations such as race. But the constitutional basis for objecting to intentionally discriminatory application of laws is the Equal Protection Clause, not the Fourth Amendment.”
Chino Hardin of Brownsville, Brooklyn, was arrested for marijuana via a stop and frisk procedure in 2005, and spent five days in central bookings as a result. A field coordinator for the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Advocacy and veteran of time behind bars, Hardin used her personal experience to explain why this policy is an ineffective attempt to curb drug use and actually works to separate communities from law enforcement. “There are no drug counselors in central booking. There are no social workers in central booking,” Chino said. “If we really want our young people to not use drugs and smoke marijuana, then take 10% of 75 million dollars and put drug education in our schools, put it in our churches, put it in our homes so we’re talking about these things because when you stop young people due to racial profiling and make them empty out their pockets, then how you going to tell them to stop snitching?”
Councilman Jumaane Williams of Precinct 67, another neighborhood disproportionately high in marijuana arrests, also commented on the strain these arrests put on relations between police and the community. “It’s very, very difficult when I look at stats like these, when I see my community be terrorized by police officers, be deceived by police officers, and then I have to go back and tell the community to work with these police officers,” said Williams, who finds the silence surrounding the issue the most troubling. “If you’re not saying anything, then you’re not fit to lead, because what you’re saying is that part of this population is not important to you – that this injustice that is clear is okay, and that spending 75 million dollars in a time of fiscal crisis is okay.” Williams also called for a return to what he called the “more honest” Jim Crow laws –– honest because with Jim Crow, “at least I know what I’m working with.”