Enjoy Rudy Giuliani's Screw-Ups as Trump's Lawyer, But He's Still Horrible on Marijuana

While the man may be a buffoon, his views on drugs and crime are no laughing matter.

Photo Credit: FlickR/Bluejersey

Who isn't enjoying Rudy Giuliani's performance as an endearingly bumbling personal attorney for President Trump? After all, in the few days he has been in the position, he's managed to come up with multiple stories about the president, his porn stars, and his fixers, none of which reflect favorably on Team Trump. He's unintentionally been doing his incompetent best to help implode the Trump White House, and for that, he deserves our thanks.

But although Giuliani's zany antics are entertaining and—one hopes—damaging even further the credibility-challenged president, let's take a moment to remember what a true reactionary the former New York City mayor really is, especially when it comes to drugs and crime.

Giuliani made his political bones as a federal prosecutor and grandstanded his record of drug prosecutions into a successful mayoral bid in 1993, becoming the first Republican mayor of the liberal metropolis in 20 years. Under his leadership, New York City became the marijuana possession arrest capital of the world.

Under his predecessors, Democrats Ed Koch and David Dinkins, small-time pot busts had numbered in the hundreds or low thousands each year, but under Giuliani, those busts went through the roof. The city hit 10,000 pot possession arrests in 1996, nearly 20,000 in 1997, and more than 30,000 in 1998 and 1999, before peaking at more than 50,000 in 2000. They declined slightly in 2001, Giuliani's last year in office, as the NYPD found other things to worry about after the September 11 attacks that year.

Then and to this day, the vast majority of people arrested for small-time pot possession were non-white. Minorities accounted for more than 80% of pot busts then, and even now, while pot possession arrests are way down (under 20,000 a year under Bill de Blasio), black and brown people accounted for 86% of those busts in 2017.

In an especially cruel twist, Giuliani's and the NYPD's mass marijuana arrest campaign came years after the state actually decriminalized the possession of small amounts of pot. What would typically happen is that the cops would roust someone, demand that he empty his pockets, and then arrest him for public possession of marijuana, which was not decriminalized. To make his campaign work, Giuliani had to subvert the spirit of the decriminalization law. He had no problem doing so.

The "tough on crime" mayor's campaign of pot possession arrests was part of a broader anti-crime offensive that went under the rubric "broken windows." That strategy emphasizes going after visible signs of criminality, even if the crimes are minor, as a means of increasing order and thus improving quality of life. That meant going after trivial offenses, such as pot possession, public urination, or public drinking and locking up large numbers of offenders, again, most of them non-white.

Another part of Giuliani's anti-crime, anti-drug strategy was "stop and frisk," the NYPD's aggressive targeting of primarily young people of color for suspicionless stops and searches. Giuliani and then Police Commissioner William Bratton pioneered the strategy, stopping about 90,000 people in his last year in office. The practice ballooned under his successor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, peaking at 685,000 stop and frisks in 2011. Some 88% of those subject to the abusive practice were totally innocent, and 87% of them were black and brown.

It took a federal court to end the practice, with District Court Judge Shira Scheindlin ruling it unconstitutional in 2013. By last year, Giuliani's stop and frisk legacy was on its last legs, with only 10,000 such stops reported in the city. Again, though, 90% of them were aimed at black and brown people, even though two-thirds of those stopped were innocent of any crime.

Giuliani has been out of office since 2002, but the intervening years show no sign he has brought his views on marijuana or policing into the 21st century. When running one of his failed presidential campaigns in 2007, he refused to endorse the use of medical marijuana, claiming it was a stalking horse for legalization—and that people would be better off with pain medications!

"I believe the effort to try and make marijuana available for medical uses is really a way to legalize it. There's no reason for it," he said at a New Hampshire town hall. "You can accomplish everything you want to accomplish with things other than marijuana, probably better. There are pain medications much superior to marijuana," he said. "We'd be much better off telling people the truth. Marijuana adds nothing to the array of legal medications and prescription medications that are available for pain relief."

Years after that, Giuliani remained immune to the facts and science about marijuana. In 2014, in the early stages of yet another failed presidential campaign, he drew on his prosecutorial expertise to explain why he opposed legalizing marijuana.

 "It can deteriorate your brain. I used to be a narcotics prosecutor," he said.

Giuliani hasn't been talking about marijuana much lately, but his stances are increasingly out of step even with the Republican Party. Former House Speaker John Boehner, for instance, has dramatically switched course on marijuana legalization, and Giuliani's new boss, the titular head of the party, has signaled that he won't go after marijuana in states where it is legal.

But Trump's words notwithstanding, both Giuliani, his own personal lawyer, and Jeff Sessions, his man at the Justice Department, are still old-school pot prohibitionists. Rudy may be doing the rest of us some favors with his stumbling efforts to defend the president from himself, but his malign position on pot remains bad news indeed.



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Phillip Smith has been a drug policy journalist for the past two decades. Smith is currently a senior writing fellow at the Independent Media Institute