New Yorkers Rally Outside Mayor Bloomberg’s House Calling for End to Costly, Biased Marijuana Arrest Crusade

Press Release May 24, 2011
Media Contact

Tony Newman 646-335-5384 or Sean Barry 646-373-3344</p>

New York, NY – Mayor Bloomberg's Upper East Side house was surrounded by City Council Members and fifty community members this morning demanding an end to illegal marijuana arrests, which have led to staggering racial disparities and significant financial cost to the City. Carrying signs highlighting the racial disparities, fiscal waste and constitutional violations associated with these arrests, the community members were joined by City Council Members Letitia James, Melissa Mark-Viverito and Jumaane Williams.

"The mayor wants to leave a legacy as someone who promoted greater freedoms in this City, but his record around marijuana arrests tells a different story," said Robert Tolbert, a VOCAL-NY leader and Board member. "Rather than subject our youth to criminal records that can close doors on their future, Mayor Bloomberg should be investing in building up and stabilizing our communities. Instead, he is engaging in wasteful spending on these arrests while programs that I and others in my community rely on are being cut."

In 2010, over 54,000 people were arrested in NY for possessing small amounts of marijuana – over 50,000 of those arrests occurred in New York City alone. Marijuana possession is the number one arrest in the City, comprising 15 percent of all arrests. The arrests are largely the result of illegal searches, have led to staggering racial disparities, and cost taxpayers tens of millions of dollars every year.

The estimated annual cost to taxpayers for these arrests is $75 million per year at a time when Mayor Bloomberg has proposed $400 million in new cuts for human services programs, such as housing and nutrition programs for homeless people living with HIV/AIDS.

"The NYPD's overzealous enforcement against the possession of small amounts of marijuana imposes staggering social and fiscal costs on our city," said Council Member Melissa Mark-Viverito. "While we fight for a change in the state law to decriminalize the public display of small amounts of marijuana, the Bloomberg administration and the Police Department should re-evaluate this policy. With the Mayor's Executive Budget proposing the smallest police force in years, it is time to make more effective use of the NYPD's limited resources. During these tough economic times, when we are contemplating severe cuts to basic municipal and human services the $75 million we spend on marijuana arrests each year should be among the first places we look for savings. Corrupting the intent of the law which originally sought to decriminalize marijuana and bringing youth into the criminal justice system unnecessarily will, at the end of the day, only cost all of us more socially and economically."

"The flood of illegal arrests for marijuana possession that has occurred under the Bloomberg administration is an example of the worst of our city's problems' with inefficiency and inequality," said Council Member Jumaane Williams. "We wasted between $50-$100 million alone last year arresting individuals for low-level marijuana violations, all at a time where the Mayor proposes cutting essential services to our children and seniors. Furthermore, almost 90 percent of these arrests are targeting the youth of our black and Latino communities, even when national studies show that young whites use marijuana at higher rates. The fact is that many of our city's police officers are pressured to pad their arrest numbers, leading to illegal search and seizures and damaging the relationship between the NYPD and our communities. We need our police and community leaders to be partners on this issue, not adversaries."

Marijuana arrest rates have skyrocketed under Mayor Bloomberg even though possessing small amounts was decriminalized in the 1970s. In fact, more people have been arrested for marijuana possession under Mayor Bloomberg than under Mayors Koch, Dinkins, and Giuliani combined. About 85% of all those arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana are black and Latino, even though studies show that whites use marijuana at higher rates. Nearly 70% of those arrested are of young people aged 16-29.

"I'm aghast that the NYPD has made marijuana possession a top arrest priority," said Council Member Letitia James. "Our youth already have to worry about the lack of available jobs, which is difficult enough, the last thing they need is to be victims of illegal searches. These arrests are leading to the systematic humiliation and harassment of Black and Latino residents, and the NYPD is only creating a greater divide between the officers and the people they serve."

"The NYPD and Mayor Bloomberg are waging a war on young Blacks and Latinos in New York," said Chino Hardin, organizer with the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reforms and Alternatives. "These 50,000 arrests for small amounts of marijuana can have devastating consequences for New Yorkers and their families, including: permanent criminal records, loss of financial aid, possible loss of child custody, loss of public housing and a host of other collateral damage. It's not a coincidence that the neighborhoods with high marijuana arrests are the same neighborhoods with high stop-and-frisks and high juvenile arrests."

In Albany, new bipartisan legislation sponsored by Assembly Member Hakeem Jeffries (D, WFP – Brooklyn) and Senator Mark Grisanti (R, C, IP – Buffalo) would seek to clarify the intent of the original state law and standardize penalties. 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 unwarranted racial disparities associated with arrests for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

In the 2001 Mayoral race, Bloomberg told reporters he'd tried and enjoyed marijuana, but today the three-term Mayor has not taken action to stop the epidemic of illegal searches and false arrests of tens of thousands of young men of color.

"The NYPD's marijuana enforcement practices are racially bias, unjust, costly – and almost certainly illegal," said Gabriel Sayegh, New York State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Residents of the Mayor's neighborhood certainly use marijuana, and if they were treated just like the residents of East New York or Harlem or the South Bronx or Jamaica – racially profiled, stopped and frisked en masse, illegally searched, falsely charged and arrested by the tens of thousands – you can be sure this marijuana arrest crusade would end immediately. That's wrong. We need to make it right."

As the number of stops and frisks have increased dramatically, so too have the arrests for marijuana possession. Furthermore, most stop and frisks by the NYPD are probably illegal according to a new analysis by Ira Glasser, former head of the ACLU and current Drug Policy Alliance President. The full issue brief is available on the Drug Policy Alliance website:

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

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