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How the NYPD's Ongoing Petty Pot Arrest Crusade Hurts the Black and Latino Community

Since Mayor Bloomberg became mayor a decade ago, the NYPD has arrested nearly 350,000 young Black and Latino for low-level marijuana possession.
 
 
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 The new data is in: the New York City Police Department made 50,680 arrests for the lowest-level marijuana possession offense in 2011 – more arrests than any year in the last decade. New York City thus retains its dubious distinction as the marijuana arrest capital of the world.  

Here’s the catch: since 1977, possession of small amounts of marijuana has been a violation, a non-arrestable offense – unless it’s burning or in plain public view. Lawmakers in 1977 wrote that “arrests, criminal prosecutions, and criminal penalties are inappropriate for people who possess small amounts of marihuana (sic) for personal use. Every year, this process needlessly scars thousands of lives and wastes millions of dollars in law enforcement resources, while detracting from the prosecution of serious crime.”  

But the vast majority of those arrested last year did not possess marijuana in public view; rather, these arrests are largely the result of illegal searches and false charges. Every year, NYPD is stopping and frisking more than a half million mostly young Black and Latino men, sometimes recovering small amounts of marijuana and falsely charging them with marijuana possession in public view.

Getting arrested for marijuana is no small matter – not least because it creates a permanent criminal record that can easily be found on the Internet by employers, landlords, schools, credit agencies, licensing boards and banks. It also means getting handcuffed, taken to the station, fingerprinted, photographed (and in some cases, having one’s eyes scanned); detained for hours and sometimes days, and then released with a court date.

"These new numbers go hand in hand with what we know to be true in the everyday lives of young people of color in the targeted neighborhoods,” said Kyung Ji Rhee, juvenile justice project director at the Center for NuLeadership. “Stories of illegal searches, disdainful and racist remarks, not to mention illegal marijuana arrests continue unabated without any accountability. That’s one reason why the number of requests for our Know Your Rights trainings have shot up."

Last September, in response to mounting public pressure, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly issued an operations order reminding officers to follow existing New York State law; officers, Kelly wrote, must not falsely charge people for possessing marijuana in public view if the individual removed marijuana from their pocket under the order of a police officer. Unfortunately, Kelly’s order has not stopped the practice.

Stephen Glover, a 31-year-old African-American member of VOCAL-NY, was arrested for marijuana possession near 150th St and Courtlandt Ave in the Bronx in November 2011 – months after Commissioner Kelly’s operations order was issued.

"It seems like Commissioner Kelly can't control his police force when it comes to stopping illegal marijuana arrests," Mr. Glover said. "I was standing outside of a job training program when the police ran up on me, searched my pockets without my permission and found a tiny amount of marijuana. They kept me in jail for three days and then released me with the threat of another 20 days in jail if I had any more police contact. Saying one thing and doing another when it comes to marijuana possession will just push the NYPD's credibility to new lows."

Since Michael Bloomberg became mayor a decade ago, the NYPD has made more than 400,000 lowest-level marijuana possession arrests at a cost of $600 million dollars. Nearly 350,000 of those  arrested for marijuana possession under Bloomberg are young Black and Latino men – even though young whites use marijuana at higher rates.

“It is worth remembering and pointing out that U.S. government studies consistently find that young whites use marijuana at higher rates than young Blacks and Latinos,” said Queens College professor Harry Levine. “But the police patrols, stop and frisks, and arrest quotas are highest in Black and Latino neighborhoods, and that is where the NYPD makes most marijuana possession arrests. Mayor Bloomberg is like the Energizer bunny of marijuana arrests – he just keeps going and going and going.”