By Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director
Arresting and prosecuting low level marijuana offenders in New York City has little or no impact on law enforcement efforts to reduce violent crime, according to a study released today by Human Rights Watch, an international advocacy organization that focuses on human rights violations worldwide.
The study’s authors reviewed data from the New York Department of Criminal Justice Services to track the criminal records of nearly 30,000 people who had no prior convictions when they were arrested for marijuana possession in public view [NY State Penal Law 221.10] in 2003 and 2004. Researchers assessed whether those arrested for minor marijuana violations engaged in additional, more serious criminal activity in the years following their arrest.
They reported: “[W]e found that 3.1 percent of [marijuana arrestees]were subsequently convicted of one violent felony offense during the six-and-a-half to eight-and-a-half years that our research covers; 0.4 percent had two or more violent felony convictions. That is, 1,022 persons out of the nearly 30,000 we tracked had subsequent violent felony convictions. Ninety percent (26,315) had no subsequent felony convictions of any kind.”
New York City police arrest more people for possessing small amounts of marijuana in public view than for any other offense, the study found. Between 1996 and 2011, police made more than half-a-million (586,320) arrests for this misdemeanor, including a total of around 100,000 in just the 2 years of 2010 and 2011. Of those arrested, the overwhelming majority are either Black or Latino and under 25 years of age.
Investigators concluded: “[T]he rate of felony and violent felony conviction among this group of first-time marijuana arrestees appears to be lower than the rate of felony conviction for the national population, taking into account age, gender, and race. … Neither our findings nor those of other researchers indicate the arrests are an efficient or fair means for identifying future dangerous felons.”
Under New York state law, the private possession of up to 25 grams of marijuana is a non-criminal civil citation, punishable by a $100 fine. By contrast, the possession of any amount of cannabis in public view is a criminal misdemeanor.
In June, Democrat Gov. Andrew Cuomo urged lawmakers to close the ‘public view’ loophole. That effort was ultimately quashed by, Senate majority leader, Republican Dean Skelos, who argued, “Being able to just walk around with ten joints in each ear, and it only be a violation, I think that’s wrong.”
In October, Gov. Cuomo reiterated his support for amending the state’s marijuana laws. Speaking a the New York State Trooper Class of 2012 graduation ceremony, Cuomo said that he “would not consider” convening a special legislative session unless lawmakers were willing to consider reforms to reduce New York City’s skyrocketing marijuana arrest rates.