New York City's 'Marijuana Arrest Crusade'


In an eye-opening new report for the New York Civil Liberties Union (noted by Radley Balko earlier this morning), sociologist Harry G. Levine and drug policy activist Deborah Small call attention to a "marijuana arrest crusade" in New York City that began under Rudy Giuliani and continues under Michael Bloomberg:

From 1997 to 2006, 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, and ten times more than in the decade before that.

Marijuana arrests have been rising nationwide since the early 1990s, but the increase in New York City has been much more dramatic. Levine and Small say the surge in arrests is largely a byproduct of an aggressive "stop and frisk" program in which police pat down young men they (supposedly) suspect of criminal activity, ostensibly to make sure they're not carrying weapons. The targets of these pat-downs are disproportionately black and Hispanic, and so are the people arrested for marijuana possession. Between 1997 and 2006, blacks, who represent 26 percent of New York's population, accounted for 52 percent of the marijuana arrests; Hispanics, about the same share of the population, accounted for 31 percent of the arrests; and non-Hispanic whites, about 35 percent of the population, accounted for just 15 percent of the arrests. Yet survey data indicate that, if anything, whites smoke pot at higher rates than blacks and Hispanics.

Although New York State decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana (less than seven-eighths of an ounce) in 1977, Levine and Small report, New York City marijuana busts typically result in a trip to the police station, fingerprinting, and a night in jail. Instead of charging people who are carrying a little pot with possession, a citable offense simlar to a traffic violation, police typically accuse them of having marijuana "open to view," a misdemeanor, often after tricking or intimidating them into revealing their stash. In the vast majority of cases, the arrestees are not caught smoking pot in public, and the marijuana charge is the most serious offense. 

Levine and Small note several incentives that encourage police to hassle pot smokers:

Narcotics and patrol police, their supervisors, and top commanders in the police department benefit from the marijuana possession arrests. The arrests are comparatively safe, allow officers and their supervisors to accrue overtime pay, and produce arrest numbers that show productivity. When needed, commanders can temporarily shift narcotics police off making the misdemeanor possession arrests and assign them to other duties, which provides considerable flexibility. The marijuana arrests are also the most effective means available for obtaining information (including fingerprints, photographs, and potentially DNA samples) from people never before entered in the criminal justice databases.

For the arrestees, by contrast, getting busted is not only humiliating, expensive, inconvenient, and embittering; it gives them a criminal record that can hamper their educational and employment prospects for the rest of their lives.