New Report Shows Persistent Racial Disparities and Economic Impacts in Marijuana Arrests Across New York

Press Release March 17, 2021
Media Contact

Matt Sutton 212-613-8026
[email protected]

New York, NY – A new report released today by the Drug Policy Alliance and the Public Science Project at the Graduate Center, CUNY, Inequitable Marijuana Criminalization, COVID-19, and Socioeconomic Disparities: The Case for Community Reinvestment in New York, shows deep racial disparities and economic impacts in marijuana arrests across the state of New York. Four specific case studies document how, despite regional differences, people of color in New York City, New Rochelle, Syracuse, and Buffalo are consistently over-represented in marijuana arrests, and areas with the highest marijuana arrest rates also tend to have proportionally larger populations of color, according to the report. Across all cities, there were also higher COVID-19 positivity rates among the high marijuana arrest zip codes compared to the low marijuana arrest zip codes. 

“The enforcement of marijuana prohibition has devastated communities across New York State, primarily communities of color and low-income communities. There have been more than 800,000 arrests for low-level marijuana just in the last 25 years alone in New York, with extreme racial disparities – despite data showing similar rates of use and sale across racial and ethnic populations,” said Melissa Moore, New York State Director, Drug Policy Alliance. “In light of this new report, New York has the opportunity to pass the most ambitious marijuana legalization bill in the country, setting the national model for marijuana legalization by centering reinvestment, equity, and justice within our comprehensive reform. Let’s get this done right.”

In each city, selected to represent different regions, as well as economic, educational, and racial diversity within the state, the average poverty rate was significantly higher among the high marijuana arrest zip codes and the high marijuana arrest zip codes consistently have nearly half the median household income of the low marijuana arrest zip codes – except for New Rochelle, where the disparity is even greater. The average percentage of families receiving SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) in high marijuana arrest zip codes was at least three times greater than in low marijuana arrest zip codes. In addition, every high marijuana arrest zip code had both lower rates of home ownerships and lower median home values than low marijuana arrest zip codes.

The extreme racial disparities in New York’s marijuana arrest crusade, as detailed in the case studies in this report, are the result of targeted criminalization and structural racism – and the same factors that have driven the marijuana arrest crusade have also resulted in generational wealth impacts. Now, as this report shows, there are also extreme disparities in the impact of COVID-19 in the same neighborhoods.

“Legalizing marijuana cannot be done justly in New York without an adequate plan for atonement for the devastation caused to Black and Brown people during the decades-long war on drugs,” said Stanley Fritz, Political Director at Citizen Action of New York. “This report makes clear the link between being a person of color, economic status and mass criminalization. The consequence for our community is disproportionate deaths, infection rates, joblessness and housing insecurity during the pandemic. Legislators will miss the mark to pass truly equitable legislation if they do not vote on the MRTA.” 

“Decades of criminalization during New York’s marijuana arrest crusade have impacted people’s ability to secure housing, employment, and higher education, further exacerbating challenges marginalized communities faced before the pandemic and compounding efforts to survive amid the COVID-19 crisis. The same communities targeted by the war on drugs are the ones with the least access to health care right now, the ones grappling with decades of the economic toll from criminalization, with low wages, unstable housing, and the ones losing jobs and loved ones at the same time. The structural factors at play are wholly intertwined – and they cannot be ignored any longer,” according to the report’s foreword.  

Legalization provides an opportunity to invest a significant portion of marijuana tax revenue in the communities that bore the worst of marijuana criminalization and are now deeply impacted by COVID-19. Both the Drug Policy Alliance and the Public Science Project at the Graduate Center, CUNY support the comprehensive Marijuana Reform and Taxation Act (MRTA), which is the gold standard reform bill in the Legislature. It provides strong community reinvestment and social equity provisions, comprehensively addresses prior criminalization, and has a balanced governance structure for the Office of Cannabis Management.

“At a time when our government must find ways to reduce placing people in confined spaces because of the pandemic, police find ways to target Marijuana arrests in vulnerable people of color neighborhoods.  This is insanity. Stop criminalizing people of color. Pass the MRTA!” said Juan Cartagena, President & General Counsel, LatinoJustice PRLDEF

“Our ability to support the health of minority communities who’ve suffered disproportionately from cannabis criminalization, as well as our ability to create businesses and jobs within the cannabis industry, is an opportunity that should not be squandered. Additional research from the National Institutes of Health shows high levels of trauma and PTSD among African-American people in urban areas, and if we were to focus specifically on the trauma and PTSD of those incarcerated for marijuana crimes, those numbers would skyrocket. New York must pass legalization that addresses these lifelong impacts,” said Adrian Adams, Ed.D., Minorities for Medical Marijuana.       

“This report is simply an empirical recognition of what Black and brown people across NYS have known for years,” said Jawanza James Williams, Director of Organizing from VOCAL-NY, “The only appropriate response to this reality is the immediate legalization of cannabis through the MRTA, with robust economic and social reinvestment into the communities most harmed; anything, short of that is at best racist by negligence, and a willful disregard of Black lives.”

“It is often misconstrued that the war on drugs was ‘failed,’ yet we know all too well that it has been intricately designed to result in ways that have funneled Black and Brown and Indigenous New Yorkers into the carceral state. In Syracuse – a city with the highest concentrated poverty among Blacks and Latinos nationwide, one of the most segregated school borders in NYS, and with an underfunded school district – as all across the state, this war has disproportionately destroyed families and communities of color, fulfilling its intended and designed outcome. The era for race neutral policies to solve racially biased ones is over! The only way to remedy the harm of marijuana prohibition is to design for racial justice at the core. New York has an opportunity to do right by the communities that have been devastated by the war on drugs, and the MRTA is an important step towards achieving those goals,” said Yusuf Abdul-Qadir, Syracuse Police Accountability and Reform Coalition.

“These findings reveal how stark and concentrated the disparities are in communities of color,” said Dr. Brett Stoudt, Associate Professor in the Psychology Doctoral Program at the CUNY Graduate Center and Associate Director of the Public Science Project. “We need comprehensive legislation like MRTA now more than ever because COVID-19 has only served to heighten the severity of this deeply entrenched and structural precarity.”

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

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