Matt Sutton 212-613-8026
NEW YORK – According to data just released by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, the New York City Police Department continued their marijuana arrest crusade in 2011, surpassing 2010’s near-record amount of low-level marijuana arrests. In 2011, the NYPD made more than 50,680 arrests for the lowest-level marijuana possession offense, making 2011 the second-highest period for marijuana arrests in New York City history.
Since 1977, possession of small amounts of marijuana has been a violation, a non-arrestable offense – unless it’s burning or in plain public view. At that time, lawmakers wrote into the new bill that “arrests, criminal prosecutions, and criminal penalties are inappropriate for people who possess small amounts of marihuana (sic) for personal use. Every year, this process needlessly scars thousands of lives and wastes millions of dollars in law enforcement resources, while detracting from the prosecution of serious crime.” Despite the existing law, marijuana possession was the largest arrest category in New York City in 2011.
Research by Queens College professor Harry Levine, and investigative reports in WNYC, the Associated Press, New York Times, Daily News, and many other news outlets show that the vast majority of those arrested did not possess marijuana in public view; rather, these arrests are largely the result of illegal searches and false charges. Every year, NYPD is stopping and frisking more than a half million mostly young black and Latino men and falsely charging them with marijuana possession in public view.
Getting arrested for marijuana is no small matter – not least because it creates a permanent criminal record that can easily be found on the Internet by employers, landlords, schools, credit agencies, licensing boards and banks. It also means getting handcuffed, taken to the station, fingerprinted, photographed (and in some cases, having one’s eyes scanned); detained for hours and sometimes days, and then released with a court date.
Lawmakers in Albany have taken notice and are now considering bipartisan legislation to end the practice. Legislation introduced by Senator Mark Grisanti (R-Buffalo) and Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries (D, WFP – Brooklyn) would standardize penalties for marijuana possession in New York, aligning police practice with the original legislative intent. The bill, S.5187/A.7620, has numerous cosponsors from across New York.
“The recent increase in illegal marijuana arrests, which continue to overwhelmingly and unfairly target black and Latino young men, is deeply disturbing,” said Assemblyman Jeffries. “The continued marijuana arrest explosion is unfair, unjust and unconscionable. It wastes millions of taxpayer dollars and needlessly ruins the lives of tens of thousands of New Yorkers. This strategy does not make us safer, and the administration’s failure to change course means that the state legislature must once again step in to restore sanity. The reform of our marijuana laws should be the legislature’s highest criminal justice priority this year.”
“New York remains in a fiscal crisis, and we simply cannot afford to arrest tens of thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens for possessing small amounts of marijuana – especially when so many of these arrests are the result of illegal searches or false charges,” said Senator Grisanti. “And the unwarranted racial disparities associated with these arrests are unacceptable. This legislation strikes the right balance by discouraging and punishing possession and use of marijuana while promoting smarter, more effective use of our limited fiscal resources.”
Last September, in response to mounting public pressure, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly issued an operations order reminding officers to follow existing New York State law. The order directed officers to stop falsely charging people for possessing marijuana in public view if individuals removed marijuana from their pocket under the order of a police officer. The order, while a step in the right direction, did not address the illegal searches conducted regularly by NYPD, nor the racial bias implicit in these arrests. Unfortunately, the Kelly order has also made little impact on NYPD practice.
Stephen Glover of the Bronx, a 31 year old African American member of VOCAL-NY, was arrested for marijuana possession near 150th St and Courtlandt Ave in the Bronx in November 2011 – after Commissioner Kelly’s operations order. “It seems like Commissioner Kelly can’t control his police force when it comes to stopping illegal marijuana arrests,” Mr. Glover said. “I was standing outside of a job training program when the police ran up on me, searched my pockets without my permission and found a tiny amount of marijuana. They kept me in jail for three days and then released me with the threat of another 20 days in jail if I had any more police contact. Saying one thing and doing another when it comes to marijuana possession will just push the NYPD’s credibility to new lows.”
With its nearly-chart topping year in 2011, the NYPD has made more than 100,000 marijuana possession arrests for the last two years; nearly 150,000 marijuana possession arrests in the last three years; and more than 227,000 marijuana possession arrests in the last five years. New York City spent at least $150 million in the last two years and has spent at least $340 million in the last five years making marijuana possession arrests.
“These new numbers go hand in hand with what know to be true in the everyday lives of young people of color in the targeted neighborhoods,” said Kyung Ji Rhee, juvenile justice project director at the Center for NuLeadership. “The number of requests for our know your rights trainings have shot up. Stories of illegal searches, disdainful and racist remarks, not to mention illegal marijuana arrests continue unabated without any accountability.”
In the last decade since Michael Bloomberg became mayor, the NYPD has made 400,038 lowest level marijuana possession arrests at a cost of $600 million dollars. Nearly 350,000 of the marijuana possession arrests made under Bloomberg are of overwhelmingly young Black and Latino men, despite the fact that young whites use marijuana at higher rates than young Blacks and Latinos.
In the last five years, the NYPD under Bloomberg has made more marijuana arrests (2007 to 2011 = 227,093) than in the 24 years from 1978 through 2001 under Mayor Giuliani, Mayor Dinkins, and Mayor Koch combined (1978 to 2001 = 226,861).
“It is worth remembering and pointing out that U.S. government studies consistently find that young whites use marijuana at higher rates than young blacks and Latinos,” said Dr. Levine. “But the police patrols, stop and frisks, and arrest quotas are highest in black and Latino neighborhoods, and that is where the NYPD makes most marijuana possession arrests. Mayor Bloomberg is like the Energizer bunny of marijuana arrests – he just keeps going and going and going.”
“We’ve been in the courts, and we’ve been in the streets, and everywhere we find people arrested for marijuana possession as a result of an illegal search and false charges,” said gabriel sayegh, New York state director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “These bogus arrests continue in spite of the current law and despite Commissioner Kelly’s operations order. Given the extraordinary degree of police lawlessness and racial bias marking these arrests, it’s time for Attorney General Eric Schneiderman and the U.S. Justice Department to open up investigations into these practices, in the City and around the state. New Yorkers have had enough.”
New York City Council Members are also taking action, introducing a resolution calling on Albany to pass the Grisanti/Jeffries bill. Resolution 0986 was introduced in the New York City Council by Council Members Melissa Mark-Viverito and G. Oliver Koppell, and numerous Council Members have signed on as co-sponsors.
“It is disappointing to continue to see these marijuana arrest numbers rise, even in the face of the Commissioner’s directive,” said Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito. “This increase continues to reinforce the need for a change in State law that would de-criminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana. The Commissioner’s directive, which reminded officers that they should not arrest individuals for possession of marijuana after asking them to empty their pockets, was clearly not enough to put a stop to this police practice which does nothing to improve public safety. We need real action to stop the criminalization of our city’s youth and communities of color.”
“It is imperative that Commissioner Kelly ensure that his order forbidding officers to arrest people for small amounts of marijuana found on individuals is followed,” said Council Member Letitia James. “The dip in marijuana arrests following this order has not stopped allegations that police officers continue to make improper arrests, and the current shift suggests this could be the case. There continues to be a gross racial disparity between marijuana users and those that are arrested for marijuana use. The NYPD must redirect their focus away from unfair and costly arrests.”
“This data shows that Commissioner Kelly’s memorandum is not being enforced,” said Council Member Jumaane Williams. “For instance, the 240% increase in arrests in the last week of 2011 compared to the same period in 2010 is highly troubling. It also seems that much of this rise is occurring in police precincts which cover communities of more color, such as the 67th and the 70th in my district. What these statistics prove is that legislative action is needed to codify the memorandum once and for all.”