According to data just released by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, New York City marijuana arrests in 2015 dropped to under 17,000 for the first time since 1996. The 16,590 arrests for low-level marijuana possession in 2015 is a 42% decline from the 26,386 in 2014 and a 67% drop from the nearly 51,000 arrests in 2011.
“New York is finally starting to shed its embarrassing distinction of being the marijuana arrest capital of the world,” said Kassandra Frederique, New York State Director at the Drug Policy Alliance. “Over the last twenty years, more than 700,000 lives were irrevocably harmed by our draconian marijuana arrest policies. We must repair the harms of marijuana prohibition and end the biased policing practices that have ruined the lives of so many young Black and Latino New Yorkers.”
In 2015, with the continuous advocacy of community members, advocates, and elected officials – the New York Police Department made 16,590 arrests for low level marijuana possession, down from a high of 26,386 in 2014. This continues a four year trend of declining marijuana possession arrest by the NYPD. Marijuana possession arrest numbers in New York City are the lowest they’ve been since 1996. Though low level marijuana possession arrests have declined, the arrests remained racially disparate, with 88% of people arrested being Black and Latino, despite consistent government data that show young white men use at higher rates.
The reduction is a departure from the marijuana arrest crusade that had become the norm for the NYPD. NYPD made almost 700,000 marijuana arrests in the last 20 years and spent 1 million police hours from 2002 to 2012 enforcing marijuana prohibition. New York State spent $675 million enforcing marijuana prohibition in 2010 alone. In 2011, nearly 51,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession, more than the occupancy of Yankee Stadium. Now, however, with 16,590 marijuana possession arrests in 2015, New York appears to have begun to turn a corner. However, much needs to be done to repair the damage these arrests have done, and to fix New York’s broken marijuana policies.
In the New York State legislature, Brooklyn Senator Daniel Squadron and East Harlem Assembly member Robert Rodriguez introduced the Fairness and Equity Act, legislation that would begin to address the collateral consequences associated with arrests, like sealing and vacating past marijuana convictions.
“The reduction in arrests for possessing small amounts of marijuana is an important step toward ending the racial disparities in marijuana enforcement,” said State Senator Daniel Squadron. “It proves that fairer policies make a difference, which is why it’s critical we pass my Fairness and Equity Act, to turn this policy into law across the state. I thank the Drug Policy Alliance, VOCAL -NY, and my colleagues for continuing their push.”
“It’s encouraging that the number of arrests and summonses for marijuana possession is decreasing; and the change in policy is yielding progress,” said Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez. “Yet, more can and should be done to end meaningless low level arrests of people of color. I have introduced the Fairness and Equity Act that will help to further reduce arrests across the state, and prevent the perpetual over criminalization that targets the youth in our minority communities.”
Increasingly, jurisdictions and legislators across the country, including here in New York, are realizing that marijuana prohibition has been ineffective, unjust, and disproportionately enforced and are working to implement policies that are fair and effective. Manhattan Senator Liz Krueger and Buffalo Assembly member Crystal Peoples-Stokes introduced the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, which would create a system to tax and regulate marijuana for adults in a manner similar to alcohol.
“It’s heartening to see that arrests for marijuana possession are down significantly. But the numbers also show that enforcement continues to be heavily racialized, with communities of color bearing a disproportionate share of the costs, said State Senator Liz Krueger. “Marijuana prohibition is simply a failed policy. Allowing personal use, with appropriate regulation and taxation, will end the unacceptable racial disparities in arrests, allow law enforcement resources to go where they’re most needed, close off an underground criminal marketplace, and provide additional revenue and economic development opportunities throughout the state. That’s the kind of smart, responsible policy that our communities desperately need.”
“The reduction in arrests are a positive step forward, but the racial disparities that remain demonstrate the need for ending marijuana prohibition altogether, said Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes. “Marijuana prohibition has extensively harmed our communities and continues to do so. We should be learning from states like Washington and Colorado who have ended their investment in prohibition and instead create a system to tax and regulate marijuana.”
With these bills, an increasing number of New York elected officials are calling for a comprehensive solution to marijuana prohibition that includes enacting regulations, addressing collateral consequences, and setting up legislative accountability measures to impede racial disparities in enforcement of the law. The New York City Council already adopted both bills as a part of their Albany legislative agenda in 2015. Advocates and community members are increasing the pressure for New York to lead the nation with comprehensive marijuana reform that deliberately address the consequences for non-citizens, formerly incarcerated people, and people of color.
“Marijuana arrests are down and that is a good thing. However, New York still has a long way to go to catch up with the types of drug policy reforms that are making other states and municipalities more just and prosperous, said Alyssa Aguilera, Political Director, VOCAL-NY. ” I hope that Governor Cuomo and the NYS Legislature will move forward the Fairness & Equity Act and the Marijuana Regulation & Taxation Act – so that we can finally stop the needless arrests and cultivate economic opportunity across our state.”