NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton said on a local radio show over the weekend that marijuana is responsible for the “vast majority” of New York City’s violence, adding that it makes him “scratch [his] head” as to why states want to legalize marijuana.
“Interestingly enough here in New York City, most of the violence we see — violence around drug trafficking — is involving marijuana,” Bratton said. “Here in New York the violence we see associated with drugs, the vast majority of it, is around marijuana, which is ironic considering the explosion in the use of heroin now in the city.”
“I have to scratch my head as we are seeing many states wanting to legalize marijuana, or more liberalization of policies.”
You can listen to the quote here, starting at about four minutes:
Morgan Fox of the Marijuana Policy Project told ThinkProgress that Bratton’s claims are “extremely dubious,” and would be highly dependent on how “involving marijuana” is defined.
“It seems to me that that statement could only be true if you just count the mere presence of marijuana,” he said. “The mere presence of a small amount of marijuana at a crime scene or on the person of someone involved in a violent crime does not mean that marijuana was involved in or the motivation for that crime.”
Given the scope of crime in New York, pinning “most” of it on marijuana seemed to be a leap, he said. Crime statistics — because of the myriad of factors involved, from socioeconomics to happenstance — are notoriously difficult to parse. But one thing that seems certain is that a rise or fall can’t often be pinned on a certain factor — particularly not marijuana.
Prohibition is the root cause of the vast majority of violence associated with marijuana
Studies have repeatedly shown that marijuana is not correlated with acts of violence. In fact, alcohol, a legal, regulated commodity, is significantly more likely to be involved in acts of violence and aggression. Numerous scientific studies have also shown that marijuana is less addictive, and has fewer negative impacts on health. A 2014 study from the University of Texas at Austin also showed that that legalization, even of just medical marijuana, might be correlated with a decrease in violent crime.
Even if Bratton’s base association of crime with marijuana were accurate, instead of making him scratch his head, Fox says it ought to be an argument for legalization.
“Prohibition is the root cause of the vast majority of violence associated with marijuana,” he told ThinkProgress.
“Most of the time I hear people making that claim as an argument in favor of marijuana policy reform, and making it legal and regulated similarly to alcohol. When these businesses or people involved in the marijuana market can take their problems to a court of law instead of dealing with them in the street, they obviously are going to choose to do so.”
“It’s just really strange, hearing people use the violence associated with the criminal market as a reason not to regulate that market. It just doesn’t make any logical sense,” Fox said.
Most of the time I hear people making that claim as an argument in favor of marijuana policy reform
This isn’t the first time Bratton has linked marijuana to crime. Last year, Bratton blamed an increase in homicides on marijuana, saying that it was a “seemingly innocent drug” that was nonetheless the root cause of the increase — a claim which Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance said was a causal leap.
“It appears that finding marijuana on the scene of a violent crime is enough for Bratton to assert a causal link. Using that rationale, we can make other causal links to violence — for instance, if police find a cell phone at the scene of a violent crime, then certainly the cell phone must cause that crime,” Sayegh said in a statement.
Reforms in recent years have led to the relative decriminalization of marijuana in New York City, though the drug — and sales of it for recreational use — remain illicit. Former Mayor Michael Bloomberg issued an executive order eliminating jail time for low level possession in 2013, and two years ago Mayor de Blasio mandated that a person possessing less than 25 grams be given a ticket, not arrested.
Decriminalization, however, wouldn’t have quite the same effect as marijuana legalization on crime. While it might save the country vast amounts of money in enforcement costs, it still leaves marijuana use and sale in a grey, unregulated area legally — which can lead to the sort of crime Bratton was presumably talking about. And despite this liberalization there were more arrests for marijuana during de Blasio’s first term than under Bloomberg’s leadership in 2013–86 percent of which were of blacks or Latinos.