Smoking Joints and Broken Windows


In a forthcoming Criminology and Public Policy article, University of Chicago law professor Bernard Harcourt and Jens Ludwig, a professor of public policy at Georgetown University, debunk the idea that New York City's crackdown on public pot smoking has helped reduce violent crime. As part of New York's "broken windows" law enforcement strategy, misdemeanor arrests for smoking marijuana in public view (MPV) rose from 1,851 in 1994 to a peak of 51,267 in 2000, an increase of 2,670 percent. According to "broken windows" theory, these arrests should have had a broader impact on crime by reducing conspicuous signs of lawbreaking and disorder. Another possible justification is that MPV arrests lead to more serious arrests because public pot smokers are especially likely to be predatory criminals. (A similar rationale has been offered for crackdowns on petty offenses such as loitering and subway turnstile jumping.) A third rationale is that arresting drug users disrupts black market activity and reduces the violence associated with it—not very plausible in this case, since the marijuana trade is substantially less violent than, say, the crack trade.

Whatever the theory for viewing MPV arrests as a crime control tactic, they do not seem to have had the predicted effect. Looking at data across police precincts, Harcourt and Ludwig initially find an association between MPV arrests and reductions in violent crime. But this apparent effect disappears once they take into account regression to the mean—the tendency of the precincts that saw the biggest increases in crime rates during the 1980s and early '90s to see the biggest subsequent drops. It turns out those precincts are also the ones that put the most effort into arresting pot smokers. After adjusting the data for regression to the mean, Harcourt and Ludwig find that, if anything, higher MPV rates are associated with higher violent crime rates. "We find no good evidence that the MPV arrests are associated with reductions in serious violent or property crimes in the city," they conclude.

The apparent lack of results is especially troubling because the MPV arrests have disproportionately involved blacks (who accounted for about 25 percent of New York's population but 52 percent of MPV arrests) and Hispanics (also about 25 percent of the population but 32 percent of MPV arrestees). It may be that blacks and Hispanics are more apt than whites to smoke pot in public, or (more likely) it could be that they disproportionately live in the high-crime neighborhoods where the police department focused its "broken windows" efforts. But Harcourt and Ludwig note that blacks and Hispanics were not only especially likely to be arrested during the study period (1989 to 2000); they also "were more likely than their white counterparts to be detained before arraignment (2.66 and 1.85 times more likely, respectively), convicted (both twice as likely) and sentenced to additional jail time (4 and 3 times more likely, respectively)." One need not accuse the police and courts of deliberate discrimination to be disturbed by figures like these, especially since advocates of the crackdown on pot smokers apparently have nothing to show for it.

Leaving aside the racial angle and the injustice of arresting people for a "crime" that harms no one, these arrests seem to be a big waste of time and money, even when you consider possible indirect effects. As Harcourt and Ludwig put it, "New York City's marijuana policing strategy seems likely to simply divert scarce police resources away from more effective approaches that research suggests is capable of reducing real crime."

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  1. I think that the very fact that smoking pot in public has its own acronym means that there are one helluva lot of people smoking this stuff.

    At some point, does the very size of the pot-smoking population gain some sort of critical mass, leading to the bursting of the dope dam?

    Consider that in two states with outright marijuana legalization initiatives in 2006, Colorado and Nevada, support was near critical at 40 and 44 percent respectively.

    How many more election cycles before Uncle Sam pulls his finger out of the hole in the dyke?

  2. ‘debunk the idea that New York city’s crackdown on public pot smoking has helped reduce violent crime.’

    Man, quit harshin’ my buzz.

  3. I drive a Mazda MPV van.

    So that’s why I keep getting pulled over.

  4. RandyAyn,

    Are you suggesting that 44 and 40 percent of the respective populations of Nevada and Colorado smoke pot because those are the percentages that voted to legalize it? If so, I don’t think those actually votes demonstrate that. If they did, I think that would sadly mean that no one approves of marijuana legalization unless they smoke pot themselves. It would also mean legalization won’t happen unless a majority of the voting population smoke pot. Me hopes you got that wrong!

  5. Smoking pot makes me feel like somebody clocked me over the head with a frying pan, and so does unnecessary restraint of people’s freedom. Just as people vote for choice in abortion who aren’t necessarily going to have an abortion themselves, people vote to suspend laws on pot because they go against their values.

  6. You think because a large number smoke a substance in public in NYC it should be legalized? Speak to our mayor who’s heading toward banning public smoking…of cigarettes.

  7. i’ve blazed in many public places in manhattan, mostly around greenwich village, soho, and the financial district…i’ve never been bothered.

  8. fyodor, I think you misread randy’s post:

    He says that alot of people are smoking marijuana in public view, which implies broad social acceptance.

    Then he points out that the recent legalization initiatives garnered respectable percentages of yes votes, which also implies broad social acceptance.

    I think that he is arguing that most people are increasingly ignoring the demonization of marijuana, and is curious when that will translate into a change in governmental policy, not arguing that only pot-smokers want pot legalized.

  9. Treal,

    Have you ever tried walking around with a joint north of 42nd St.? You might not get hassled downtown where real New Yorkers live, but best believe the “Disney” area of town (and more importantly, the poorer sections of the outer Boroughs) the cops are on the hunt.

  10. Thanks tarran, and fyodor what tarran says is essentially correct. I think the only thing that is guaranteed to lead to the legalization of marijuana is broad public acceptence, and the number of people smoking (at home and especially in public) is one general indicator of this acceptence.

    I think you can look to on-the-ground facts and add that understanding to the poll trends to get a good idea of how people feel about whether those who choose to use this herb deserve to have their liberty and property stripped away.

    Really, the only thing which has allowed this outrage to perpetuate is the endemic national ignorance of this issue.

    I see that ignorance gradually fading as the predicted consequences dramatically differ from what people observe first hand about those they know who partake.

    They must eventually come to question the original rationale for the prohibition and finally stop and ask “What’s the reason we’re locking these people up?”

  11. fyodor,

    I disagree with you analysis. I think that if ~40% voted for legalization, that implies that >80% is smoking. Because not only are nearly all non-smokers pro-prohibition, most pot users are too. That would mean that the lies of the WOD are so engrained, that even first hand experience is not enough to turn the tide. I hope I’m wrong about that.

  12. Warren,

    I’m the only of two smokers in my circle, and nobody I know is pro-prohibition. Many are vocally anti.

  13. Er, that came out garbled. I’m one of two – had typed only, but then another person occurred to me that I had forgotten. Ironically, it’s epic lack of sleep that’s fried my linguistic brain today, not intoxication.

  14. I’d love to see the $$$ figures as to how much officer time & money went into these efforts.

    The “tactical narcotics team” in the early ’90s was a 700-officer team deployed “tactically” (about as tactical as a game of whack-a-mole in reality) that cost $172,000+ daily with the effect of increasing (undercover officer’s – not necessarily real users) “search time” for drugs to buy by a grand total of 43 minutes on average. $15.5 million for a 90 day effort that made it take 43 minutes longer to get high. (If anybody wants the figures, you’re gonna have to hit up the Vera Institute for a paper copy – the data wasn’t online as of last year anyway).

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