Justice

New York Mayor Campaigned Against Pot Crackdowns, But Possession Arrests Are Still Soaring

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New York City is implementing a court order to scale back rampant police stops, and Mayor Bill de Blasio (D) lamented during his campaign that marijuana possession arrests have “disastrous consequences for individuals and their families.” But in 2014, monthly pot possession arrests have gone up, and 86 percent of those arrests were of African Americans or Latinos, according to data compiled by Queens College professor Harry Levine.

“President Obama, Governor Cuomo, former Mayor Ed Koch and candidate Bill de Blasio all strongly criticized the NYPD’s racist marijuana possession arrests,” Levine said in a statement issued by Drug Policy Alliance and Marijuana Arrest Research Project. “Yet the most progressive mayor in the modern history of New York is unable to stop them? Really?”

Apparently not. The vast majority of those arrests in 2014, 75 percent, were first-time offenders with nary a misdemeanor on their record.

Levine points out that the arrests don’t just break down by socioeconomic status. He compares three Queens neighborhoods with “very similar media incomes” of $58,000 or 59,000: “Flushing, with only 19% black and Latino residents, has a marijuana arrest rate of 89 per hundred thousand residents. Fresh Meadows is 32% blacks and Latinos and has a rate of 96 marijuana arrests. But the St. Albans neighborhood is 93% black and Latino residents and has a marijuana arrest rate of 396 – four times that of Flushing and over three times that of Fresh Meadows.” In other counties, similar examples show that “race trumps class,” although both are factors.

Levine isn’t attributing the arrests to overt racism by cops, but instead to institutionalized racism that has yielded incomes just as disparate as in the Jim Crow era. “The absence of hostile intent doesn’t absolve policy-makers and law enforcement officers from responsibility or blame,” he said.

There are many potential reasons why marijuana arrests haven’t changed. For one thing, the law remains the same. Marijuana has been decriminalized in New York State since 1977 for possession of up to 25 grams of pot. But not for certain types of people in certain types of neighborhoods, because of a loophole in the law that still criminalizes marijuana in public view. Sometimes, arrests for “marijuana in public view” means an individual is smoking pot in public. A lot of other times, though, it means an officer stops an individual, orders them to empty their pockets, or frisks them and empties their pockets, and then considers the marijuana that has now come into view as violating the law.

Last year, New York State considered a fix in the budget process that would have closed this loophole for “marijuana in public view.” The change had the public support of Gov. Andrew Cuomo. But when the budget was finalized, the provision wasn’t in there.

For another, while police stops started going down even before Bloomberg left office and have continued in that direction, a philosophy known as broken windows policing is reportedly up. That philosophy of policing relies on flooding police into high-crime neighborhoods and targeting low-level violations as a way of thwarting more serious crime. In March, the New York Times reported a spike in arrests for low-level offenses, which, in addition to pot possession include drinking beer in public, riding a bike on the sidewalk, and illegal peddling — the brand of offense that Eric Garner was alleged to have committed when he was placed in a chokehold by police and died.

What’s more, police Commissioner Bill Bratton has signaled that he is not necessarily amenable to scaling back marijuana prosecutions. When Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson announced over the summer that his office would stop prosecuting most low-level marijuana cases, Bratton signaled he wouldn’t change his arrest policy, saying, “the Kings County policy change will not result in any changes in the policies and procedures of the N.Y.P.D.” And even those in Brooklyn who won’t later be prosecuted could still face significant consequences, including a tarnished arrest record, and, until recently, several days in jail.

De Blasio explained several of these consequences when campaigning against marijuana possession crackdowns: “These arrests limit one’s ability to qualify for student financial aid and undermine one’s ability to find stable housing and good jobs. What’s more, recent studies demonstrate clear racial bias in arrests for low‐level possession…. This policy is unjust and wrong.”

A Drug Policy Alliance study last year found that NYPD had spent more than 1 million hours on pot arrests between 2002 and 2012.