A new report released by the Marijuana Arrest Research Project and the Drug Policy Alliance shows that, despite campaign promises, marijuana possession arrests under Mayor de Blasio are on track to equal – or even surpass – the number of arrests under Mayor Bloomberg. As under the Bloomberg and Giuliani administrations, these arrests are marked by shockingly high racial disparities. The report, Race, Class & Marijuana Arrests in Mayor de Blasio’s Two New Yorks: the NYPD’s Marijuana Arrest Crusade Continues in 2014 draws on data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services and shows that despite a change in mayoral administrations and police commissioners, the NYPD continues its practice of making wasteful, racially biased, and costly marijuana arrests.
The report includes extensive analysis of marijuana arrest and income data, showing that overall, low income and middle class communities of color face dramatically higher rates of marijuana possession arrests than do white communities of every class bracket. Most of those arrested are young men of color, even though young white men use marijuana at higher rates. Nearly 75% of the people arrested for marijuana possession in 2014 have never been convicted of even a single misdemeanor, and only 11% have a misdemeanor conviction.
“President Obama, Governor Cuomo, former Mayor Ed Koch and candidate Bill de Blasio all strongly criticized the NYPD’s racist marijuana possession arrests,” saidreport author and Queens College professor Harry Levine. “Yet the most progressive mayor in the modern history of New York is unable to stop them? Really?”
New York State decriminalized personal possession of small amounts of marijuana in 1977, finding that arresting people for small amounts of marijuana “needlessly scars thousands of lives while detracting from the prosecution of serious crimes.” Yet over the last twenty years, marijuana possession has become a top law enforcement priority, with nearly 600,000 people having been arrested under this provision in New York City alone, often as the result of an illegal search or as the result of a stop-and-frisk encounter when police demand an individual “empty their pockets,” thus exposing marijuana to public view.
“I was illegally searched by the NYPD and arrested for having a small amount of marijuana in my pocket,” said Iveily Matias, 20, a VOCAL-NY member living in Washington Heights. “It was my first time ever getting arrested and now I have a criminal record that makes it harder to find a job. I wasn’t posing a risk to anyone’s health or safety, so why am I, and so many other young people of color, being criminalized?”
Efforts to end the marijuana arrest crusade in New York continue to build. In a major development earlier this year, Brooklyn Congressman Hakeem Jeffries sent a letter to Mayor de Blasio calling for an end to biased marijuana possession arrests. Additionally, this spring, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson announced a plan to stop prosecuting people arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana. The proposal was met with wide support from elected officials, community groups, and advocates; notably, though, Commissioner Bratton brazenly vowed to continue the racially biased arrest practice. And in Albany, where reform proposals have been debated for years, Assemblyman Karim Camara and Senator Daniel Squadron introduced the Fairness and Equity Act – new, comprehensive legislation to end the marijuana arrest crusade and address the persistent, unwarranted racial disparities associated with the practice.
“There is no excuse for the New York City marijuana arrest crusade to be continuing in 2014,” said Kassandra Frederique, New York Policy Manager for the Drug Policy Alliance. “New Yorkers made it clear that Black lives mattered when they voted for the mayoral candidate that supported ending bias policing practices, including racist marijuana arrests. It is time for that mayoral candidate to become the mayor and order his police commissioner to end these wasteful marijuana arrests now.”
When comparing arrests in the first eight months of both years (January – August), state data show that the NYPD made 396 more marijuana arrests in 2013 than in 2014 (20,080 versus 19,684). Why slightly more in 2013? Because of the low numbers of marijuana arrests in January and February of 2014, the first two months of the new mayoral administration. Were the marijuana arrests down in January and February 2014 because of policies of the new administration? No. The arrests were down because, according to records from the U.S. weather service, New York City received more inches of snow in January and February of 2014 than in any year since 1870 – more snow than in any January and February in 145 years. In effect, it took what insurance companies call “an act of God” to slow down the NYPD’s marijuana possession arrests in 2014. And then only for two months. Since then, the numbers of the NYPD’s lowest‐ level marijuana arrests have been up, and are on track to equal or pass all arrests in 2013.
“When it comes to marijuana possession arrests, the de Blasio-Bratton record is an awful tale of two New Yorks,” said gabriel sayegh, Managing Director for Policy & Campaigns for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Mayor de Blasio promised to end these arrests, so why do they continue today? The City Council should act to hold the Mayor and Commissioner accountable, and Albany needs to pass the Fairness and Equity Act. We cannot allow systemic racial disparities to persist. Every New Yorker should receive fair, equal treatment under the law, regardless of their race, their class or where they live.”