NEW YORK -- Just released figures by the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services show that in 2010, the New York City Police Department arrested 50,383 people for low-level marijuana offenses. Arrests for low-level marijuana possession offenses are the number one arrest in New York City, making up 15 percent of all arrests. On average, nearly 140 people are arrested every day for marijuana possession in NYC, making the Big Apple the “Marijuana Arrest Capital of the World.”
This dramatic rise in marijuana arrests is not the result of increased marijuana use, which peaked nationally around 1980 according to data collected by the U.S. government. Over the last twenty years, NYPD has quietly made arrests for marijuana their top enforcement priority, without public acknowledgement or debate. This is the sixth year in a row with an increase in marijuana possession arrests. In 2005, there were 29,752 such arrests, and in 2010, there were 50,383, a 41 percent increase. Since Michael Bloomberg came into office in 2002, there have been 350,000 arrests for low-level marijuana offenses in NYC.
“New York has made more marijuana arrests under Bloomberg than any mayor in New York City history,” said Dr. Harry Levine, a Sociology professor at Queens College and the nation’s leading expert on marijuana arrests. “Bloomberg’s police have arrested more people for marijuana than Mayors Koch, Dinkins, and Giuliani combined. These arrests cost tens of millions of dollars every year, and introduce tens of thousands of young people into our broken criminal justice system.”
Most people arrested for marijuana possession offenses are handcuffed, placed in a police car, taken to a police station, fingerprinted and photographed, held in jail for 24 hours or more and then arraigned before a judge. Almost 70 percent of those arrested are younger than 30 years old. 86 percent of those arrested are Black or Latino, even though research consistently shows that young whites use marijuana at higher rates.
“The NYPD and Mayor Bloomberg are waging a war on young Blacks and Latinos in New York,” said Kyung Ji Rhee, Director of the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reforms and Alternatives. “These 50,000 arrests for small amounts of marijuana can have devastating consequences for New Yorkers and their families, including: permanent criminal records, loss of financial aid, possible loss of child custody, loss of public housing and a host of other collateral damage. It's not a coincidence that the neighborhoods with high marijuana arrests are the same neighborhoods with high stop-and-frisks and high juvenile arrests."
Few New Yorkers know that over 30 years ago, marijuana possession was decriminalized in New York when a Republican State Senator and a Democratic State Assemblyperson sponsored the Marijuana Reform Act of 1977. The Legislature found that “arrests, criminal prosecutions and criminal penalties are inappropriate for people who possess small quantities of marihuana (sic) for personal use.” Possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana was decriminalized – that is, it was made a violation, with the first offense facing a maximum penalty of a $100 fine, not arrest and jail. Marijuana burning or “in public view” was made a criminal offense, a misdemeanor.
Most people arrested for marijuana possession were not smoking in public; most simply had a small amount of marijuana in their pocket, purse or bag. Possessing a small amount of marijuana in one’s pocket or bag is a legal violation, not a criminal offense. But quite often, when police stop and question a person, they say “empty your pockets” or “open your bag.” Many people comply with the officer’s request. If a person pulls marijuana from their pocket or bag, it makes the marijuana “open to public view,” a crime. The police then arrest the person for this misdemeanor. In 2009, the NYPD stopped and questioned over 575,000 people — 84% of them people of color. Over 325,000 of those stops resulted in frisks. Fewer than 12% of those encounters resulted in a summons or arrest.
This month, the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reforms and Alternatives (IJJRA), and the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) launched a training program called “Know Your Rights, Build Your Future.” The trainings are being held in every borough every month to educate New Yorkers about their rights and the law. They are part of a City-wide campaign to end the marijuana arrest crusade and promote more effective policies for our youth.
“The NYPD’s marijuana enforcement practices are racially bias, unjust, and costly,” said Gabriel Sayegh, New York State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “The Mayor can end these arrests immediately by simply ordering Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and the NYPD to follow the legislative intent of the 1977 decriminalization law. What the Legislature found in 1977 holds true today: arrests for small amounts of marijuana are inappropriate and wasteful.”
The groups are also calling upon City Council to hold hearings to demand greater accountability from NYPD and learn more about both the fiscal and human costs resulting from these arrests.