To Catch a Leaf

New York City's little-noticed crackdown on pot smokers

In 2001, shortly before Michael Bloomberg became a candidate for mayor of New York, an interviewer asked him if he'd ever smoked marijuana. "You bet I did," he said, "and I enjoyed it."

Yet as mayor, Bloomberg has presided over what a recent report from the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) calls a "marijuana arrest crusade," seeking to punish pot smokers for an activity he enjoyed with impunity. This little-noticed crackdown, which began under Rudy Giuliani, has disproportionately affected young black and Hispanic men, engendering resentment, distrust of the police, and disrespect for the law.

While marijuana arrests have risen between two- and three-fold nationwide since 1990, the increase in New York has been much more dramatic. "From 1997 to 2006," sociologist Harry Levine and drug policy activist Deborah Small note in the NYCLU report, "the New York City Police Department arrested and jailed more than 353,000 people simply for possessing small amounts of marijuana. This was eleven times more marijuana arrests than in the previous decade."

Based on their analysis of arrest data and their interviews with police, arrestees, and public defenders, Levine and Small conclude that the pot busts are largely a byproduct of the NYPD's aggressive "stop and frisk" tactics. The U.S. Supreme Court has ruled that police may briefly detain people they suspect of involvement in criminal activity and, as a precautionary measure, pat them down for weapons. Taking advantage of this Fourth Amendment loophole, New York City police stopped and frisked people more than half a million times in 2006.

In the vast majority of cases, these stops do not result in arrests. But sometimes people are carrying small amounts of marijuana. Since police cannot legally search for drugs without probable cause, Levine and Small found, they typically trick or intimidate people into revealing their pot, at which point they can be arrested.

Such trickery not only exposes the contraband; it changes the nature of the offense. Under state law merely possessing a small amount of marijuana (up to 25 grams, about seven-eighths of an ounce) is a citable offense similar to a traffic violation. But having marijuana "in public view" is a misdemeanor.

The NYPD makes about 35,000 such arrests each year. Although marijuana possession is either the only or the most serious charge in these cases, the arrestees are nevertheless handcuffed and taken to a police station, where they are fingerprinted and photographed, and they usually spend a night in jail, an uncomfortable, degrading, and often frightening experience.

Contrary to what you might expect, Levine and Small found that people arrested for marijuana possession in New York generally are not smoking pot in public. "Before being approached by the police," they note, "most people arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession...were actually not guilty of what they were charged with."

Why do police waste time and resources manufacturing crimes? Levine and Small note that busting pot smokers is a relatively safe and easy way to pad arrest figures, which creates the illusion of productivity, and generate overtime pay, a practice known as "collars for dollars."

From the collars' perspective, getting arrested for a trivial, victimless offense, which saddles them with criminal records that can impair their ability to obtain an education and make a living, is humiliating and embittering. It is especially rankling because police seem to be targeting poor black and Hispanic men for treatment that would not be tolerated if it were aimed at affluent white New Yorkers.

Survey data indicate that among 18-to-25-year-olds, the age group where the pot busts are concentrated, whites are more likely than blacks or Hispanics to smoke marijuana. Yet Levine and Small found that in New York blacks and Hispanics are, respectively, five and three times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession.

For pot smokers caught in the NYPD's dragnet, is Bloomberg's position on marijuana—"I enjoyed it; you'd better not"—hard to accept? You bet it is.

© Copyright 2008 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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  • ||

    Look on the bright side - we're not the only nation of idiots - misery loves company!

  • Guy Montag||

    Wondering if there could be something related to the entire chain-of-command having been flooded with "information" on how pot will destroy your life, since birth.

    Doubt that it is in the report.

    Next up, why unions and Socialism are popular in New York, added bonus, why the industrial revolution must be stopped!

  • ||

    It is especially rankling because police seem to be targeting poor black and Hispanic men for treatment that would not be tolerated if it were aimed at affluent white New Yorkers.

    Uh, yeah - that probably goes a long way in explaining why pot is still illegal in the first place.

    If the only people smoking it were white suburban kids, you can be pretty sure it would have been taken off the books years ago...

  • Jozef||

    I've met Bloomberg socially on several occasions, and got to talk to him enough to realize that he's a self-righteous bastard who thinks that anything he isn't doing should be criminal. Ever since he quit smoking he was a very strong anti-smoking crusader, to the extent that self-confessed smokers had a very tough time in his company. He's been also known (and he confessed this in "his" book Bloomberg on Bloomberg to never hire anyone who left his company before. And then there is the case (the only one that actually made it to the media) where he told a worker to get an abortion, so that she wouldn't take maternity leave.

    Now, I'm the first one to defend his actions as the company owner and Chairman. It was his company, and he should be able to hire/fire any people he wanted. However, as a politician, behaving as if his constituents were his employees makes him the self-righteous bastard I mentioned at the beginning.

  • ||

    I've said to several people, especially back when the rumor mill had Bloomberg considering a 3rd party run for President, that the BEST thing he could do for NYC and the country would be to give up politics completely and return to his old jobs in the private sector.

  • ||

    If the only people smoking it were white suburban kids, you can be pretty sure it would have been taken off the books years ago...

    Not buying it. There is constant bellyaching about underage drug use, and subsequent overwhelming support for WoD, in every white suburban community I've ever observed.

  • ||

    Politician = Hypocrite

    Why would anyone expect more from an "I'm richer than most so I'm better than most" a**hole politician.

  • ||

    I may be naive, but isn't what the cops are doing pretty much the definition of entrapment?

  • ||

    There's no level of hypocrisy in the "War on Drugs" that can surprise me any more, unfortunately.

  • ce||

    "a self-righteous bastard who thinks that anything he isn't doing should be criminal"

    Not that he's unique in that respect.

  • ||

    Like pro-life, gay marriage, decency campaigns
    and FISA, this betrays the true nature of what
    Republicans are: hyperstatist bullies who need
    to control everything around them. The SDSU
    roundup partly clouds the race/class angle, but it's still hard to deny. The real issue is control. One election after another, the Americans find more and more for the state to do. The Democrats are hardly better. Mandatory health screening and a full-on gun grabfest in the inner cities are only the start. We're going to be on defense for some time.

  • jtuf||

    The law definitely needs to be changes. If you had the NYC coucil's ear, what bill would you tell them to pass?

  • Brandon||

    MP said, "Not buying it. There is constant bellyaching about underage drug use, and subsequent overwhelming support for WoD, in every white suburban community I've ever observed."

    Jacob wasn't referring to the illegality of pot that whites would disapprove of, he was referring to the illegality of the method and pretty clear entrapment of the arrests.

    Black people, unfortunately, seem to be more resigned to police abuse.

  • Episiarch||

    he's a self-righteous bastard who thinks that anything he isn't doing should be criminal

    No shit, welcome to Mikesville. The sad thing is I voted for the asshole (last time I voted for anything--wonder why?) solely because I said "anything other than Mark Green is preferable". I still am unsure if that was correct, because Mikey sucks ass, and maybe Green would have been better on smoking/MJ/something.

  • ||

    Black people, unfortunately, seem to be more resigned to police abuse.

    Not buying it. I know what Jacob was referring to, and I think that gestapo WoD tactics against teenagers are welcome, no...applauded, in white suburban communities.

  • Mike Bloomberg||

    You don't understand - it was the *dope* that turned me into a power-crazed psychopath. Everything in *Reefer Madness* is true! I don't want what happened to me to happen to other people.

    Another side-effect is forgetfulness - I forgot all about why Prohibition of alcohol was such a bad idea, so I decided to do the same stuff with the weed - with the exception that Prohibition was only aimed at manufacture and sale, while I also attack possession and public display.

  • ||

    If the only people smoking it were white suburban kids, you can be pretty sure it would have been taken off the books years ago...

    Pretty sure this was sarcasm, guys, given that, you know, white suburban kids ARE the ones smoking it.

    Black people, unfortunately, seem to be more resigned to police abuse.

    More like, they are less able to stop it.

  • ||

    I've made this point before, but I believe the NYPD has disputed the methodology and findings in this study. It would be fair to at least note that.

  • ||

    I don't think I even understand why marijuana is illegal in the first place.

    Srsly, does anyone know?

  • John||

    I don't think I even understand why marijuana is illegal in the first place.

    Because it is an intoxicant.

  • Sam Grove||

    I don't think I even understand why marijuana is illegal in the first place.

    A little history.

  • Sam Grove||

    Jacob Sullum reads the report on why Bloomberg's effort is failing,

    What do you mean it's failing? It seems that they are successfully arresting lots of people.

  • ||

    Because it is an intoxicant.

    John, Please! If your going to post on this thread, you can't be that stupid! Oh yea, this is America. You can be as stupid as you like. You may even qualify for political office, maybe even Mayor of New York.

  • Blue||

    It is especially rankling because police seem to be targeting poor black and Hispanic men for treatment that would not be tolerated if it were aimed at affluent white New Yorkers.


    Sullum, you shouldn't temper your words so much. "Seem" to be? Human Rights Watch has found empirical evidence of the racist drug war across the US.

  • ||

    I smoke pot and I love it, don't think I will quit anytime soon. But, if you get caught with an illegal substance, whether it is Meth, Ex, or Pot then it is illegal and you should be penalized for the crime you knowingly committed. If I get caught yes I will be pissed but I am not going to b**ch and moan about it, I will take the punishment for the crime I committed. As for police tricking you into revieling something, here is a little tip, they do it EVERYWHERE!

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