New York's Illegal Pot Crackdown

The NYPD continues to make bogus marijuana busts.


Thirty-five years ago, New York's legislature decriminalized marijuana possession. Numbers released last week show the New York Police Department continues to flagrantly flout that policy, wasting resources on a pointless, unjust, and illegal crusade against pot smokers.

Under the Marijuana Reform Act of 1977, possessing up to 25 grams of cannabis (about nine-tenths of an ounce) is a citable offense similar to a traffic violation, punishable by a maximum fine of $100. But if the marijuana is "burning or open to public view," that's a Class B misdemeanor, punishable but up to three months in jail. An officer who uses intimidation or coercion to convert the former offense into the latter, thereby providing a pretext for an arrest, is breaking the law.

Don't take my word for it. In a directive issued last September, New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly reminded the city's cops that "the public display of marihuana must be an activity undertaken of the subject's own volition." He said the charge is not legally appropriate "if the marihuana recovered was disclosed to public view at an officer's discretion."

Why did Kelly think it was necessary to remind his officers that they are supposed to follow the law? He was responding to complaints that police in New York manufacture misdemeanors by instructing people they stop to take out any contraband they might have or by searching them (ostensibly for weapons) and pulling out a joint or a bag of pot.

Such tricks help explain why pot busts have skyrocketed in New York City during the last decade and a half, even while marijuana use (as measured by government-sponsored surveys) has remained about the same. From 1997 through 2011, according to figures compiled by Queens College sociologist Harry Levine, the number of low-level marijuana arrests averaged about 39,000 a year, 14 times the average for the previous 15 years.

Based on interviews with "veteran New York City legal aid and public defender attorneys and supervisors from Manhattan, Brooklyn and the Bronx," Levine estimates that "two-thirds to three-quarters of the people arrested for misdemeanor possession" are busted in circumstances that Kelly himself says make the charge unjustified. Yet nine weeks after his directive, marijuana arrests were down only 13 percent compared to the same period in the previous year, and new data show the number for 2011 was 50,684, the second highest total ever.

Kelly seems unperturbed, suggesting that most of the arrests involve people brazenly waving their weed under officers' noses, although he concedes it's "very difficult to quantify" what fraction of the busts are legitimate. "Our clients are still regularly stopped [and] searched, and marijuana is recovered from their pocket," a Bronx public defender told A.P. last week. "At no point were they having it out [or] smoking it."

If such arrests are as common as they seem to be, most of the 400,000 or so pot smokers busted on Kelly's watch have been wrongly detained, wrongly fingerprinted, wrongly jailed, wrongly booked, and wrongly saddled with criminal justice records and all the attendant expense, inconvenience, and humiliation. Adding to the unfairness, these burdens are disproportionately borne by young black and Latino men, even though surveys indicate they are less likely to smoke pot than young white men.

The marijuana arrests are largely an outgrowth of the NYPD's "stop and frisk" program, which focuses on supposedly suspicious individuals in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods. In New York City during the last three years, Levine calculates, blacks were seven times as likely to be arrested for marijuana possession as whites.

To stop these bogus busts, Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn) and state Sen. Mark Grisanti (R-Buffalo) have introduced a bill that would treat public display the same as possession for small amounts of marijuana. Kelly had a chance to show this legislation was not necessary, but it is abundantly clear by now that the NYPD cannot be trusted to decide whether pot smokers should be treated like criminals.

Jacob Sullum is a senior editor at Reason and a nationally syndicated columnist. Follow him on Twitter.

© Copyright 2012 by Creators Syndicate Inc.

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    1. So here's the weird part. There is arguably some justification for what the law is supposed to be: You can have a little pot in your home or on your person; but don't be smokin' that shit on the street--there's kids there, mane!

      Now it appears at least that they would create a law that would basically legalize on-street smoking. Since roooooaaaaaaaaddddddzzz are publicly owned, you might argue that there's a caretaker function that would prohibit certain types of "wild" behavior.

      But now, because NYPD are lazy and corrupt and racist and power-drunk, we are going to have to have a fight over people who were peaceful and discreet in carrying their dope.

      This shit ain't be happening in Boston is all I'm saying.

      1. Feck off. This shit be happenin' all over Amnerika. Drink! Arse! Girls!

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  2. how is this not entrapment?

    1. Because the NYPD says so?

    2. Fuck you. That's why.

      1. I asked how not why...

        1. Fuck you, that's how.

        2. If a cop asks you to empty your pockets, you don't have to comply.
          Sure he might beat you down if you don't, but no law says you must comply.
          Therefor it is a voluntary act.
          If in doing so you display marihuana, then you did so voluntarily.
          Therefor it is not entrapment.

          Ignorance of the law is no excuse.

          IOW fuck you, that's how.

    3. If you're not bi-curious you have nothing to be afraid of.

  3. "marihuana"

    "Marihuana"? Did Kelly then order his cops to make sure their "velocipedes " were secured before raiding the opium dens of "China-town"?

  4. Why is anyone surprised by this. Since the Guiliani regime the NYPD has become an organization that believes they're above the law and accountable to no one. That Facist piece of shit Michael Bloomberg even had the nerve to call the NYPD his 'private army'.

    1. Feck Bloomers and feck filthy, corrupt oinkers!

      Got bacon?

    2. Feck Bloomers and feck filthy, corrupt oinkers!

      Got bacon?

  5. They really have bought into the whole "broken windows" theory of crime control. I guess once the windows were all fixed they decided joints were the next thing.

  6. If you don't like marihuana, then don't use it.

  7. http://rctlfy.wordpress.com/20.....at-a-time/

    Jacob, did you not already write this? Hmm, I know I've blogwhored it too 😉

  8. You mean to say a cop would abuse his authority by demanding someone empty their pockets, thereby displaying what they would not have otherwise displayed so the cop can put them in jail?

    No fucking way! Cops are honest and selfless!

    Why else would someone seek out a job that involves carrying a club and a gun, with no consequences for using either?

    1. Well, there's also the pay, benes and pension. And limitless possibilities for graft. And sirens.

      1. ...and that seriously gay uniform

    2. Didn't you already say this? We get it.

      1. Rerun. then read mine

  9. Superficially you would think the average cop just has a hard-on for MJ, but I would bet more than half of them smoke it themselves. This is about keeping arrest numbers up. They do have quotas to keep and this is an easy way for them to make it.

    1. I'm quite positive that the reason cops are not subjected to drug testing because so many would come up positive, especially for illegal use of steroids.

      1. Yep....I remember when they passed a law 20 years ago barring anyone who had committed any kind of violent crime from possessing a gun. The cops went apeshit and insisted on having an exception made for them. Apparently wife-beating is rampant among them so half of them would have lost their jobs.

        1. My wife left her ex because she was afraid for her safety.

          He never actually hit her, though he did kick the dog and smash furniture when he would lose his temper (which was quite often).

          He also had a long record of violent crimes.

          He has since become a cop.

          1. I'm sure the people whose faces he will inevitably kick in will deserve it for merely questioning his orders, recording him on duty, not give consent to a warrantless search, or even smart mouth the officer. Yeah, he will be totally justified.

            1. His own son is afraid of him. Since he's become a cop he "arrests" his son whenever the kid ticks him off.
              We're talking about a 250lb man pulling pro wrestling moves on a ten year old boy.
              Of course the kid is afraid to tell anyone with authority because his father is authority and authority always backs up authority.

              I hope someone shoots the guy in the face at a traffic stop.

              1. yikes. He sounds like he should be a client at a certain institution where I used to work. They have some nice meds for him and two guys over 500 lbs who could show him some new moves.

              2. Are you planning on having children of your own?
                Please say no.

  10. In fact....the average cop's behavior is guided mostly by the system he/she works under. If kelly is so intersted in his officers towing the line, he should reform the system.
    Not very many officers would rather be out on the street hassling people than sitting in a donut shop. Some would, but the vast majority dont.

    1. I disagree with you there.
      I think most cops love nothing more than to hassle people and goad them into giving the cop an excuse to use force.
      People don't seek out a job that gives them the power to commit assault without consequence unless they enjoy committing assault without having to worry about any consequences.

      1. The types you are referring to are represented in much higher than average numbers in the population of LEOs, but they are not a majority. I know tons of them and most are just average guys who have a job with good benefits and lousy pay. In fact I drink coffee regularly with the local sheriff and you couldnt dream up a better guy.

        I have been told a number of times that the reason they hire guys like your wife's ex is so that they can keep a close eye on them. I am not sure that is a good policy.

        1. I dunno. I chat with her ex fairly regularly as I shuttle their son back and forth, and he can't stop gushing about how much he loves his job and the guys he works with.
          That leads me to believe that, at least in his department (dunphy's is full of angels as we all know), people like him are the norm.

          1. You are getting that impression from his ( presumably personality-disordered perspective)
            We had a guy like that in a dept I worked for. Everyone despised him, and for good reason. He was just the type you are talking about, but with a heavy dose of sex-pervert mixed in.

            He thought we all loved him. He invited us all to his wedding and not one single person went. When the chief called us all to see who was going and discovered no one was he bit the bullet and went himself. He said the weddinghad tons of food and a DJ and the whole setup, but that only five people showed up. We all laughed our asses off.

            The guy still thinks he is popular and loved.
            go figure.

            1. Before becoming a cop he was a marine mechanic, and the local cops were always visiting him at work asking him to quit his job to join the force.
              I don't think they would have done that if they despised him.

              1. The old 'birds of a feather' saying is true. Some depts are worse than others, mostly because of the personality of the chief or sheriff. Generally the attitude of the leader gets reflected down the line

              2. I get the feeling that you hate cops, sarcasmic. It's subtle, but I'm reading between the lines. It's nice that there's a blog for people like you, where you can vent your frustrations, all day long, every day, with compassionate and understanding strangers. Do you find that this form of therapy works for you? Would you recommend it to others who share your anxieties?

        2. I live in southern California, so maybe my view of police pay is skewed, but from what I know they are paid two or three times the median income of most households. And that's not including benefits.

          1. In one city where I used to live the average base salary for a detective was $80K.

            Add in overtime, benefits and graft...

  11. Another factor is the court system. I think DAs want to have every single person in the country in the system, so it is set up to arrest as many people as possible on anything they can get.

  12. So if you take out the pot, you get busted. If you refuse, you're refusing a lawful order and you get busted. Is that right?

    1. You've got it. They have to make their quota. The arrest is the whole point.

    2. "Do you know why I pulled you over?"

      Say yes: You've confessed to a violation.

      Say no: You are lying to a police officer.

      Say nothing: You get dragged out of the car for failure to respond.

      Rigged games are the funnest!

      1. "No officer, I don't read minds"

        But that probably gets you dragged out of the car too.

    3. Actually, I've stopped the NYPD cold with the technique I learned in "10 Rules For Dealing With Police." Granted, I'm a white guy, so I have that going for me. I think it also helped that people started filming the second they heard me say "I don't consent to searches. Am I being detained or am I free to go?" A round of applause followed them telling me "Have a nice day."

      This however does not work during my almost weekly compulsory search at the WTC. There they just tell you if you don't like it to find another way to New Jersey.

      Good luck with that one, bring your swimsuit. The ACLU wants nothing to do with it, they won't even call me back.

      1. I bet that if there weren't witnesses things would have gone a lot differently.

        1. No doubt, I had a lot going for me. I'm white, was dressed well, and was in a "good" neighborhood, and there were many witnesses. I'm under no delusion that changing any of those factors...in particular my race, would have elicited a completely different response.

          1. I had a cop whisper into my ear "Give me one reason. Please. I'm begging you. You know I want to. Give me one fucking reason. Please. I'm begging you." after I said "What the?" when he kicked my legs out from under me before doing a search.

            And I'm as white as they come.

            You got lucky.

            1. doncha love it?

              The only time I ever had a problem like that was when a cop buddy of mine came to visit and brought one of his fellow officers with him. The guy was an undercover drug dude and I assume a heavy user. When he was introduced to me he looked me in the eye and said " I could kill you right now".

              The guy didnt know me from Adam's cat, was standing in the middle of my living room and threatening me two seconds after meeting me. What he didnt know is that I always have a gun. I had a chief's special in my back pocket. I was half a second from drilling a hole in him when my friend intervened.

              I just told him to get the fuck out of my house and dont come back. If he had come back I would have shot him on sight. He is in prison now.

            2. I had a cop whisper into my ear

              Kinky! This explains much.

              1. obvious troll is obvious

  13. It is not a crusade against pot smokers. It is a crusade against minority men. I will bet anyone here, I could, as a professional age white guy, put on a suit, stick a bag of pot in my jacket pocket and walk all over New York and never get stop and frisked once. At most, I might get a cop to ask me "excuse me sir, are you lost up here in Harlem?". And all I would have to do then is put on the scared white guy routine and he would happily escort me back to a good neighborhood no frisking, no charge.

    This is not about pot. This is about giving the NYC cops and excuse to make sure that white liberals in Manhattan are not exposed to the scourge of young minority men.

    1. You are probably correct. I really know nothing about NYC as I have never been there and have no plans to go. In fact, given the insane gun laws, I have a plan to never even visit the state or any near it.

      We have the same problem in New Orleans, but most of the rest of the state is ok. Of course, in N.O. it is justified in my opinion.

      1. I am not an expert on New York either. But I know cops. And I know that in my entire life I have had exactly two cops ever try to fuck with me. Cops are total assholes. But they generally know that fucking with respectable white people isn't a good idea. Better to fuck with brown people that no one cares about.

      2. "of course, in N.O. it is justified in my opinion."

        So you're implying that cops are justified in targeting black/non-white individuals more frequently than white individuals? I guess you should be thankful you weren't born black, because then ass holes like you vindicate cops that break into a persons house and shoot him on the toilet because he may have possibly been disposing of weed/evidence (see Ramarley Graham).

  14. ...It is bad enough that they are coercing MJ arrests...But they are stopping and searching (hoodied)people WITHOUT probable cause!(Police State tactics)...Of all illegal "Stop & Frisk" How many gun possession arrests have been made?..I'm guessing less than 100...

    1. I had a cop stop and search me claiming that my untucked shirt was probably cause to frisk me for weapons.

      Had another one demand ID so he could run me for warrants since I had committed the crime of littering by pitching a cigarette butt into a mud puddle.

      Probably cause is whatever they make up on the spot.

      And if you don't have a lawyer on retainer... fuck you.

      1. Dang! You are one unlucky dude when it comes to cops. I'm surprised that you've managed to retain your objectivity about law enforcement. Many people with your experiences would have turned bitter, vindictive and vengeful. How do you manage it?

    2. Stopping and frisking without consent, or reasonable articulable suspicion of criminal activity, does indeed violate the 4th Amendment. I imagine most of this is not on videotape, so the cop can lie and say the defendant consented.

      Does anyone know of any court challenges to the "stop and frisk" policy?

      1. Sure. Start here. Here's a blurb on a Federal case that's going forward on, IIRC, the database that NYPD maintains on the people it stops and frisks. Many of these are settled with no admission of wrongdoing, like Blair v. City of New York, S.D.N.Y., Index No. 08 CIV 4303 (direct).

        I think John gets it mostly right, above: liberal NY'ers are O.K. with minority men getting the "papers please" treatment, if it promises lower violent crime, and if they don't get messed with either. Disgusting, but predictable.

  15. "Numbers released last week show the New York Police Department continues to flagrantly flout that policy, wasting resources on a pointless, unjust, and illegal crusade against pot smokers."

    Wasting resources is from the taxpayers perspective, not law enforcement. Consuming resources is their job. That's why you can't get them to stop.

    Arrests need to be made to keep the system running. Like a business, you need to keep the customers coming in the door. Marijuana arrests are so simple, and a lot of people depend on those "customers" that the police bring into the criminal justice system.

  16. lol, gotta jsut love those bought and paid for politicians!


  17. Marijuana has been proven to kill cancer cells. Many patients have been completely cured. The April 2009 journal of clinical investigation published one such study conducted by dr. Guillermo velasco at complutense university in Spain. Harvard has also found the same results in their studies. Over 600,000 people died last year from cancer which could have been treated and cured by cannabis (marijuana) the government knowingly keeping this cure illegal is GENOCIDE.

    This article shows an obvious need to legalize. Over 50% of Americans are for legalization and over 70% of New Yorkers are for legalization, accordin to Gallup polls. Clearly he constituents believe arresting individuals for marijuana is unconstitutional and must be stopped.

  18. Cannabis must be legalized in all forms. We have deprived the American economy of a valuable resource for way too long. There is and never has been any proven Health or Public Welfare reason for the current laws, whether against smoking, possessing or growing. Cannabis was made illegal as a manipulation of Corporate interests protecting entrenched industries back in the 30's. WE need a new green feedstock for Fuel Food Fiber and Fun! Hemp/Cannabis/Marijuana can Save America!
    I highly recommend Jack Herer's book "The Emperor Wears No Clothes."
    Personally I have been arrested for smoking on the streets of NYC more than once -[ it is one of my regular acts of civil disobedience, my Mother is still wishing for me to grow up ] and have had the cops themselves say how much more they'd rather meet their "quotas" busting pot smokers instead of other "real" criminals or seedier drug users.
    Prohibition breeds corruption and disrespect for authority. For that reason alone - Cops should be freed from these temptations.

  19. Jacob is correct that Kelley is not following through on his words. We need to stop the use of the word "illegal" and start focusing on stopping ALL CANNABIS ARRESTS.

  20. 13th Amendment
    Abolition of Slavery (1865)
    Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, EXCEPT as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.

    (It's not about fighting crime or public safety. They want our $.28/hr labor.)

    Elders Arrested By NYPD in Harlem Jan. 5, 2012

  21. yes, i was put through the system for a third of a joint i had concealed in a cigar tube deep in my jacket pocket as a passenger in a car that was pulled over for supposenly blowing a red light. i was taken out of the car and searched and my friend and i were both put through the system ..officer hamburger is a corrupt piece of shit from the 104 th precient in queens and he and his goons should be fired for what they do..they also lied on the report to justify their illegal search and seizure..oh and im a white guy, so it dont matter what color you are if they need a # ur screwed.

  22. This article seems to be missing the most relevant fact to this whole fiasco. What are the judges ruling when these people are brought in for bogus crime of showing pot in public?
    If they are putting these people in jail then that is the real crime, otherwise the cops and the judges would eventually tire of this game.

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