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New York City Is Hell for Pot Smokers

If you're a pot smoking African-American or Hispanic in New York City, chances are you and the NYPD are on a first-name basis.
 
 
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If you toke in the Big Apple, chances are you've had a run-in with one of New York's "finest." If you're African-American or Hispanic, chances are you and the NYPD are on a first-name basis.

That's the dope from a new study by investigators at the National Development Research Institute (NDRI) -- an independent New York City think-tank specializing in substance abuse issues.

The study, entitled "The race/ethnicity disparity in misdemeanor marijuana arrests in New York City," analyzes NYC marijuana arrest data from 1980 to 2006. Its authors pay particular attention to the startling number of defendants arrested for "possessing marijuana in the fifth degree" (aka smoking pot in public) -- a misdemeanor crime that city cops began enforcing en masse under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani's "Quality of Life" policing initiative. (Although the possession of less than 25 grams of pot is punishable under state law by a fine-only civil citation, New York Statute 221.10 defines the possession or use of marijuana "open to public view" as a criminal misdemeanor punishable by up five days in jail.) The study's findings, which appear in the spring 2007 edition of the journal Criminology and Public Policy, are a sobering reminder of how race and class largely determine who is impacted by the war on cannabis consumers.

Of the more than 395,000 defendants busted in New York City since 1980 for puffing or possessing pot in public, nearly 336,000 of them (85 percent) were either African-American or Hispanic. By contrast, African-Americans and Hispanics together comprise approximately half of the city's population. Of the years studied, the NYPD's racial crackdown was most egregious in 1994, when a whopping 91 percent of those arrested for public pot possession were black or Hispanic.

The unequal treatment of minorities for misdemeanor pot crimes is not just limited to arrests, the study finds. Investigators also report that African-Americans were 2.66 times as likely as whites to be detained in jail pending arraignment while Hispanics were nearly twice as likely. In addition, both groups were twice as likely as whites to receive a conviction -- and criminal record -- for public pot possession. Compared to Caucasians, African-Americans were four times as likely and Hispanics were three times as likely to receive jail time.

"This study ... document[s] that the burden of [public pot] arrests have been falling disproportionately on blacks and Hispanics and that members of these minority groups, on average, have been receiving harsher treatment [than whites] within the criminal justice system," its authors conclude.

The study is hardly the first to document such racial disparities in drug law enforcement. A 2005 NORML Foundation study by longtime High Times columnist Jon Gettman reported that although black adults account for fewer than 12 percent of all marijuana users, they comprise 23% those arrested annually on pot possession charges. A previous review of marijuana arrest data by Gettman in 2000 found that African-Americans are busted for marijuana possession at rates twice those of whites in 64 percent of US counties.

In addition to highlighting the disproportionate racial aspect of New York City's pot law enforcement, the NDRI study also documents the unprecedented growth in the annual number of misdemeanor marijuana arrests resulting from Giuliani and Bloomberg's so-called "Quality of Life" policing.

According to data compiled by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, arrests for public pot possession in the 80s averaged about 2,000 per year. Arrests fell to a low of 774 in 1991 before skyrocketing under the Giuliani administration to nearly 34,000 in 1999.

City pot arrests hit an all-time high of 51,269 in 2000 before temporarily falling after the attacks of September 11, 2001. By 2006, however, nearly 32,000 New Yorkers were busted for possessing cannabis in public view -- 87 percent of whom were either black or Hispanic.

So far this decade, a staggering 265,738 people have been arrested. Even more disturbing, NYS CJS data indicates that among those arrested in 2006, far more received jail time than in years past, indicating that penalties for minor pot offenses are being treated more severely by today's judges. Nevertheless, NDRI researchers found no evidence indicating that either the increase in arrests or the severity of sentencing has contributed to a decline in serious crimes and violence.

Rather, the study contends "the growth in [public pot possession] arrest activity has had a substantial and disproportionate impact on black and Hispanic communities. ... Ending the disparities associated with marijuana in public view arrests would increase the level of justice in New York City, help [the police department's] relationship with black and Hispanic communities, and help black and Hispanic youths and young adults ... in their efforts to establish or maintain productive lives by not further burdening them with criminal justice sanctions and official criminal records."

To achieve enforcement equality the authors call on the Bloomberg administration, as well as politicians in Albany, to take action. "[T]he NYPD [should] consider scaling back on [the enforcement of] smoking marijuana in public view," they recommend. "The New York State legislature should [also] be encouraged to consider making smoking marijuana in public a violation and not a misdemeanor."

Paul Armentano is the senior policy analyst for NORML and the NORML Foundation in Washington, DC. He may be contacted via e-mail at: paul@norml.org.

 
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