Police Commissioner's Order Was Not Enough: NYPD Continues to Make Thousands of Illegal, Racially Biased Pot Arrests

 Last September, in the face of rising pressure to end racially biased, illegal and costly marijuana arrests in NYC – which have skyrocketed to more than 50,000 annually – NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly issued an uncharacteristically stern order to officers, directing them to follow the state’s existing decriminalization law. But new data released this week show that while arrests have dropped ever so slightly -- just 13% --  since Kelly issued his order, NYPD is continuing with its marijuana arrest crusade. 

In the state of New York, since 1977, possession of a small amount of marijuana has been a mere violation, which is a non-arrestable offense – unless it’s burning or in plain public view. But in 2010 one out of every seven arrests in New York City was for marijuana possession in public view – even though the vast majority of the people arrested did not actually possess marijuana in public view. Research by Queens College professor Harry Levine and valuable investigative work by WNYC’s Ailsa Chang clearly demonstrates that the vast majority of the marijuana arrests in New York City – up to 75 or even 80 percent in some precincts – are the result of illegal searches and false charges.

"Commissioner Kelly is all talk and no walk when it comes to following the law around marijuana possession in New York City," said Carl Stubbs, an openly HIV-positive member of VOCAL-NY from South Jamaica, Queens who has been illegally arrested for marijuana possession. "Too many people in neighborhoods like mine have been treated like criminals when the real law-breakers have been police illegally searching people and then charging them with having marijuana in plain sight. Either Commissioner Kelly can't control the police force or he's not taking tens of thousands of improper arrests seriously."

These marijuana arrests are just one of the problematic outcomes of NYPD’s controversial stop-and-frisk program. Last year, NYPD stopped more than 600,000 people – mostly young black and Latino men – and frisked nearly half of them. For many people, a frisk soon turns into an illegal search. For others, the police ask them to empty their pockets, and, after following police instructions, they are then charged with possession of marijuana in public view – which is a misdemeanor and an arrestable offense. While the Kelly order directed police to stop this practice, the ugly cycle continues largely unabated, at a cost of over $75 million a year.  

“Regardless of what the numbers show, the impact is still tremendously felt by the communities that are illegally and disproportionately arrested for something that has been decriminalized for over 30 years,” said Chino Hardin with the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives and an expert trainer for Know Your Rights workshops. “The crusade continues because the 13 percent drop isn’t enough. When we see the numbers decrease by 80%, then we will know that the NYPD is meaningfully following and upholding the law. We have to build a movement to stop this.”

To address these issues, advocates launched a campaign last year to stop NYPD’s marijuana arrest crusade. Led by the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives, VOCAL-NY, and the Drug Policy Alliance, the campaign has built momentum over the past year, leading Commissioner Kelly to issue his executive order. In Albany, bi-partisan legislation has been introduced to change the law and reduce the number of illegal marijuana arrests. And in New York City, a group of City Council members have introduced a resolution calling on NYPD to end its practice of ignoring the state’s decriminalization law.

Although NYPD is attempting to cast the small 13% drop in a positive light, ultimately, the new arrest data is cause for outrage. Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD are wasting millions of tax dollars by using illegal searches and false charges to sweep tens of thousands of black and Latino youth into the criminal justice system.

Professor Levine summed it up succinctly: “As of November 18, 2011, the NYPD made more marijuana possession arrests than by November 18 in 2010. By the end of the year, the NYPD is likely to have made 50,000 of the arrests, further establishing the city's position as the marijuana capital of the world.”

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