Bi-Partisan Legislation Could Put an End to New York's Costly Marijuana Arrest Crusade
Over the last fifteen years in New York, arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana have exploded. These arrests are extremely expensive for the taxpayer, the associated racial disparities are ghastly, and just to ice the cake, most of these arrests are the result of illegal searches.
Now, in a rare show of New York bi-partisanship, legislators in Albany are finally seeking to address the issue. Senator Mark Grisanti (R-Buffalo) and Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries (D, WFP - Brooklyn) introduced legislation to fix the existing marijuana decriminalization law in New York -- enacted over 30 years ago. The bill, S.5187/A. 7620, would make possession of small amounts of marijuana in both private and public subject to a violation.
The Marihuana Reform Act of 1977 was also co-sponsored by a Republican State Senator and a Democratic State Assemblyman; it made private possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana (about 7/8 of an ounce) a violation punishable by a $100 fine, while possession of any amount in view of the public was made a misdemeanor. The Legislature made an explicit finding that became part of the law: "Arrests, criminal prosecutions and criminal penalties are inappropriate for people who possess small quantities of marihuana (sic) for personal use. Every year, this process needlessly scars thousands of lives and waste millions of dollars in law enforcement resources, while detracting from the prosecution of serious crime."
Today, arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana are skyrocketing in NY. In 2010 alone, over 54,000 people were arrested statewide for possessing small amounts of marijuana - over 50,000 of those arrests occurred in New York City. Those arrested are handcuffed, taken to the precinct, fingerprinted, photographed, held in jail for 24 - 48 hours, then released -- with a criminal record.
If marijuana was decriminalized 1977, why are so many people being arrested today?
The WNYC investigation found that most people arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana were either mischarged -- charged with a crime they did not commit - and/or illegally searched. Often in the course of a stop-and-frisk encounter, if the police find marijuana in a pocket or bag, they arrest and charge the individual with possessing marijuana in public view - a misdemeanor. For others, plain trickery is involved -- the police ask them to "empty out your pockets/bag." Many people comply with the officer's request, even though they are not legally required to do so. Once in "public view," the marijuana possession becomes a misdemeanor -- a criminal offense -- and the person is arrested. The NYPD makes nearly a thousand arrests a week for simple marijuana possession - one of every seven arrests in NYC is for marijuana possession. But in the Bronx alone, the District Attorney throws out 10 -- 15 cases every day because the police mischarged a person for marijuana possession in public view, when in fact the person possessed marijuana in their pocket or bag.
"I shouldn't have to feel like a criminal when I walk down the street in my neighborhood," said Alfredo Carrassquillo, a Community Organizer with VOCAL-NY. "It feels like the police aren't there to protect the community when they stop, frisk and illegally search people like me just because we're going home or hanging out in the park. I've spent the night in jail multiple times for having a small amount of weed in my pocket because police have used a loophole in the law to arrest me -- charging me with marijuana in public view -- even though I was never using marijuana in public. We should be spending money on summer youth employment, after school programs, and jobs for people coming home from prison, not illegal arrests."
Statewide, nearly 70% of those arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana are young people aged 16-29. Nearly 84% of all those arrested are black and Latino, even though studies show that young whites use marijuana at higher rates. Studies by Dr. Harry Levine of Queens College show that among cities and counties in the U.S., Buffalo, Syracuse and New York City rank among the highest in terms of racial disparities associated with arrests for possessing small amounts of marijuana.
"The consequences of an arrest are severe, especially for young people of color who are already disproportionally arrested and incarcerated," said Kyung Ji Rhee, Director of the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives, and a leading advocate for reform. "Young people of color are targeted, illegally searched and being put through the criminal justice system. Whatever your opinion may be on marijuana, this is no way to treat or teach young people about the choices they make."
It's ironic that these arrests are happening under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who in 2001 was asked by reporters if he ever tried marijuana. He replied, "You bet I did. And I liked it." Today, the mayor -- who likes to portray himself as a commonsense moderate -- is silent as his police arrest young people of color en masse for marijuana possession. More people have been arrested for marijuana possession under Bloomberg than under Mayors Koch, Dinkins and Giuliani combined.
That leaves Albany as the last bastion of hope for reform. Fortunately, Senator Grisanti and Assemblyman Jeffries have stepped up. Their smart proposal to save taxpayer dollars, protect against constitutional violations, and reduce unwarranted racial disparities in arrests should be embraced by their colleagues as a commonsense solution to an outrageous problem.