First Quarter 2011 NYC Marijuana Arrest Numbers Released: Marijuana Possession Arrests Up 20 Percent from Same Period in 2010

Press Release June 14, 2011
Media Contact

Tony Newman 646-335-5384 or Kyung Ji Rhee 347-712-0259 or Sean Barry 646-373-3344</p>

NEW YORK – Data released by the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services shows that in the first quarter of 2011, marijuana possession arrests in New York City are up nearly 20 percent from the same period in 2010. Statewide between January and March, there more than 14,000 arrests for marijuana possession; more than 13,000 of those arrests took place in New York City. At its current rate, the NYPD is on target to make nearly 60,000 marijuana possession arrests in 2011—more than any other year in history.

In 1977, the New York Legislature decriminalized private marijuana possession; the Legislature also declared that people should not be arrested and put through the criminal system for possessing small amounts of marijuana because the process is too expensive and too damaging to individuals and communities. But today, marijuana possession is the number one arrest in New York City and a leading arrest in the state. A new study found that each of these arrests costs between $1,500 – $2,000. That means that in 2010, NY taxpayers spent between $75 – $108 million on arresting people for small amounts of marijuana.

Statewide, nearly 84% of all those arrested are black and Latino, even though studies show that young whites use marijuana at higher rates. Furthermore, almost 70% of those arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana are of young people aged 16-29. Studies by Dr. Harry Levine of Queens College show that among cities and counties in the U.S., Buffalo, Syracuse and New York City rank among the highest in terms of racial disparities associated with arrests for possessing small amounts of marijuana. Those arrested are handcuffed, taken to the precinct, fingerprinted, photographed, held in jail for 24 – 48 hours, and then released — with a criminal record. Alarmingly, most of these arrests are the result of illegal searches and false charges, as demonstrated in recent news investigations. Most people arrested in NYC for possessing small amounts of marijuana were either falsely charged — charged with a crime they did not commit — and/or illegally searched.

Now, in an unusual example of bi-partisanship in Albany, Senator Mark Grisanti (R-C -Buffalo) and Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries (D, WFP – Brooklyn) have introduced legislation to address the issue. Under the proposal (S.5187 / A. 7620), possession and use of any amount of marijuana would remain illegal; penalties for both private and public possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana would be standardized. Violators could be punished by a court summons and fine, while multiple violations could lead to a jail sentence.

The proposal has numerous co-sponsors; it was voted out of an Assembly Committee this past Monday. But in an article in today's New York Times, Mayor Bloomberg's administration came out with a statement opposing the proposal.

"The claims made by the Mayor's administration are specious at best and ultimately evasive," said Kyung Ji Rhee, Director of the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives. "The Mayor has not responded to the evidence and facts that these arrests are the result of illegal searches and racial profiling. Instead, Mayor Bloomberg is willing to sacrifice the constitutional rights, dignity and livelihood of young people of color in NYC for false and expedient claims of crime reduction. Everyone, including the NYPD officers making these arrests, know all too well that illegal searches and false charges for marijuana possession do not reduce violent crime. Only two words come to mind: unethical and racist. Painful, but true, Mr. Mayor."

As reported by WNYC and other media outlets, most of the arrests in NYC for marijuana possession are the result of illegal searches or false charges. Often, a stop-and-frisk encounter turns into a full, illegal search; having up to 25 grams of marijuana in your bag or pocket is not a crime in New York, but if police find marijuana in a pocket or bag, often as the result of an illegal search, they falsely charge the individual with possessing marijuana in public view — a misdemeanor. For others, plain trickery is involved — the police ask people to "empty out your pockets/bag." Many people comply with the officer's request, even though they are not legally required to do so. Once in "public view," the marijuana possession becomes a misdemeanor — a criminal offense — and the person is arrested.

In the Bronx alone, as reported by WNYC, the District Attorney throws out 10 — 15 cases every day because the police falsely charged a person for marijuana possession in public view, when in fact the person possessed marijuana in their pocket or bag. Many more people simply take a plea bargain, even though they were illegally searched or falsely charged.

"The emperor has no clothes when it comes to Mayor Bloomberg's defense of illegal marijuana arrests. The reality is that these arrests make it less likely for people in my community to trust the police," said Alfredo Carrassquillo, a VOCAL-NY Community Organizer. "It feels like Bloomberg doesn't live in the same city I live in. It's unacceptable for the NYPD to target tens of thousands of New Yorkers like me with harassment, illegal searches and false arrests for marijuana possession – and defend it as a crime-fighting strategy even as it ruins our lives. It's clear there's a double-standard based on the color of your skin when it comes to NYPD policing and arrests for marijuana possession. Would the mayor defend the NYPD's practices if they targeted his daughters and their friends like this?"

Mayor Bloomberg – who once said he tried and liked marijuana – lives in the 19th police precinct on the Upper-East Side of Manhattan. This precinct has the absolutely lowest rate of marijuana arrests in New York City: a mere 16 arrests a year per hundred thousand residents. This is a wealthy and overwhelmingly white neighborhood: Blacks and Latinos make up only 8% of the precinct's population.

On the other end of the continuum are the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Ocean-Hill Brownsville and East New York (precincts 73 and 75), the Manhattan neighborhoods of East Harlem and Washington Heights (precincts 25 and 33), and the neighborhood of University Heights and Fordham in the Bronx (precinct 44). The marijuana possession arrest rates in these precincts range from 100 times the rate of Bloomberg's neighborhood to an astonishing 155 times the rate in Ocean-Hill Brownsville. The population in these precincts is predominantly low-income and over 90% Black and Latino.

"Democrat or Republican, upstate or downstate, reasonable people know we cannot afford to spend tens of millions of dollars every year to illegally search, arrest and jail people for possessing small amounts of marijuana," said Gabriel Sayegh, New York State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "If Mayor Bloomberg opposes this smart reform, what does he propose to do to address the epidemic of illegal searches and racial profiling in our City? Will he order NYPD to stop conducting tens of thousands of illegal searches of young men of color? Will he order NYPD to police all neighborhoods in NYC the way they police the Mayor's neighborhood? If he did that, we'd see fewer false arrests, fewer illegal searches, there would be more money for essential services, and we'd have a safer, fairer City for all."

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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