HIGH TIME FOR JUSTICE
Blaz, NYPD & DAs vow to curb pot busts, reform biased system
Hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers have suffered life-altering harms due to marijuana prohibition and the pretext it provides for law enforcement to overpolice communities of color.
Sixty New Yorkers are arrested every day for marijuana possession — since 1996, there have been more than 800,000 such arrests.
Although marijuana possession was decriminalized in New York in 1977, a loophole maintains possession in “public view” as a crime. This loophole — coupled with pervasive and racially biased overpolicing of certain communities — has resulted in continued mass arrests.
Research shows that many of the people arrested over the last 20 years for marijuana possession were not smoking in public, but simply had a small amount in their pocket, purse or bag — a legal violation, not a criminal offense. These people were either subject to an illegal search by police or given a directive by an officer to empty their pockets or open their bags. The discovery of marijuana by police then resulted in their arrest for possession in “public view.”
While drug use and drug selling occur at similar rates across racial and ethnic groups, black and Latino individuals are arrested for possessing marijuana at vastly disproportionate rates. The racial disparities in these arrests remain as extreme as when Mayor de Blasio took office in 2014 — which points to his failure to reform marijuana enforcement policy, despite his repeated pledges to do so.
Facing ongoing public pressure, in November 2014 de Blasio and then-Police Commissioner Bill Bratton announced that the NYPD would follow the 1977 decriminalization law and not arrest people for small amounts of marijuana. That change led to a decrease in marijuana arrests the following year, but arrests began increasing again after 2015. The disproportionate enforcement in communities of color continued unabated, with people of color comprising 86% of those arrested in 2017 for marijuana possession, and 93% of those arrested so far in 2018.
This past January, de Blasio, talking about the more than 17,000 arrests in 2017, said we’ve “reached a normal level in the sense of what we were trying to achieve.”
Back in 2016, the mayor proclaimed, “We stopped the arrest for low-level marijuana possession.” But there were more than 18,000 arrests for low-level possession that year — hardly a stop.
The evidence clearly shows that the mayor and NYPD have fallen short of ending racially biased marijuana arrests and curtailing the damaging collateral consequences that they carry. The mayor and commissioner’s announcement of a 30-day study is insulting to the community — we need the arrests to end. Period.
An arrest in and of itself is a traumatic event and has a bevy of damaging consequences regardless of how a case is prosecuted. A marijuana conviction is no small matter — a criminal record causes major life-long barriers, making it difficult to get a job, education or housing.
The recent announcement that Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance Jr. will decline to prosecute most marijuana possession cases starting this summer is an appropriate response to the continued arrests and will send a strong message to law enforcement officers.
Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez is considering similar action, as should all city and statewide district attorneys.
The move to decline to prosecute is critically important since the racial disparities continue when people arrested for marijuana possession enter the courthouse, as black and Latino people are much more likely to get convicted and harshly punished.
Ultimately, the NYPD’s biased enforcement practices show the need for actual legislative change.
If elected officials are serious about upholding the rights of all New Yorkers, they should support the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, which would end marijuana prohibition and create a system to tax and regulate marijuana, while also repairing and reinvesting in communities that have been most harmed by the war on marijuana.
Marijuana legalization is considerably more popular than New York’s leading elected officials — for the sake of their careers, and the thousands of lives hanging in the balance, it’s time for them to take decisive action.
With 86% of people busted for pot possession either black or Latino, Mayor de Blasio says the NYPD will virtually stop making such arrests.