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.
As we all know, the NYPD has been on a marijuana arrest crusade for the last 20 years. Spending billions of dollars and wasting one million police hours making nearly 700,000 arrests for low-level marijuana possession. What’s worse is that the vast majority of those arrested (86 percent) are young black and Latino New Yorkers, despite the fact that they use marijuana at lower rates than their white peers.
However, things slowly began to change in 2010 when VOCAL-NY, the Marijuana Arrest Research Project, the Center for NuLeadership, and the Drug Policy Alliance launched a multi-sector campaign to expose the racism and waste that’s at the heart of marijuana enforcement in New York. We published reports, rallied at Albany and City Hall, pushed for legislative fixes, and told the stories of individuals who had their lives upended because of a simple marijuana possession.
And now, we’re winning!
In 2015, marijuana arrests were at the lowest they’ve been since 1996, when George Pataki was Governor of New York and “Macarena” by Los Del Rio was the number one song on the Billboard Top 100.
Although we are pleased that marijuana arrests are down overall, we cannot yet declare “mission accomplished”. Simple marijuana possession arrests have been on the decline for the last four years, since we began our work, but they still remain 19 times the rate they were at the start of the 1990’s. Furthermore, despite the overall decline in arrests there’s been virtually no change in the racial dis-proportionality of the arrests with Black and Latino New Yorkers still making up nearly 90 percent of those arrested.
Meanwhile, states like Washington, Colorado, Oregon, and Alaska have already recognized the need to change the way they deal with marijuana. They’ve begun this process by creating a system to tax and regulate marijuana sales and use. Even Washington, D.C., a city that has seen similar racial disparities in the enforcement of marijuana prohibition, has seen over a 99 percent reduction in marijuana possession arrests (over their first 8 months of legalization).
As the country contemplates marijuana reform, New York has a second chance to enact policies that promote justice and economic growth and an opportunity to lead the way in repairing the harms that the drug war has already inflicted on low-income communities of color.
New York can do this by passing the Fairness and Equity Act and The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act. These bills will honor the spirit and intent of the 1977 Decriminalization law by ending marijuana arrests for all instances of low-level marijuana possession, allow for investment in the communities that have been ravaged by prohibition, and address the collateral consequences that two decades of senseless marijuana arrests have created.
We are now back to where we started in 1996, except this time we know what happens when we embrace failed drug war tactics – it’s time for a new approach.
Kassandra Frederique is the director of the New York policy office of the Drug Policy Alliance.
Alyssa Aguilera is the political director of VOCAL-NY.