The Drug Policy Alliance reports that "despite campaign promises made in 2013, marijuana possession arrests under New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio are on track to equal—or even surpass—the number of arrests under his predecessor, Mayor Michael Bloomberg." Last July, by contrast, De Blasio claimed "the lowest-level marijuana arrests are down, and the focus is on serious crime, as it should be." Who is right? It depends on how you count.
From January through August of this year, according to a new report from DPA and the Marijuana Arrest Research Project (MARP), the NYPD made 19,684 petty pot busts, compared to 20,080 in 2013, the last year of the Bloomberg administration. That's a 2 percent drop. But DPA and MARP argue that the decrease is attributable to "record?breaking levels of snowfall" in January and February of this year, when marijuana arrests were down substantially compared to the same months in 2013. The monthly total under De Blasio was higher in March, April, June, July, and August. If you look at at the six most recent months for which data are available (March through August), De Blasio's total is slightly higher than Bloomberg's last year. Another way of looking at it:
In the 12 months of 2013, the NYPD averaged 79 marijuana possession arrests a day. In the 8 months of 2014, the NYPD averaged 81 marijuana possession arrests a day. 2014 surpasses slightly 2013 in daily marijuana arrests.
Hence the DPA's claim that the 2014 total is likely to be very close to the 2013 total. Even if there's a slight decrease, De Blasio's supporters should be disappointed, since during his campaign he made a point of decrying racially skewed law enforcement practices in general and petty pot busts in particular. Here is how he framed the issue in a 2013 summary of his policy positions:
Low?level marijuana possession arrests have disastrous consequences for individuals and their families. These arrests limit one's ability to qualify for student financial aid and undermine one's ability to find stable housing and good jobs. What's more, recent studies demonstrate clear racial bias in arrests for low?level possession—despite roughly equal usage rates. This policy is unjust and wrong.
Yet that unjust policy continues under De Blasio, and its burdens continue to fall overwhelmingly on blacks and Latinos, who accounted for 86 percent of arrestees in the first eight months of this year. These pot busts are especially galling because the New York legislature decriminalized possession of up to 25 grams (about nine-tenths of an ounce) way back in 1977. DPA and MARP report that New York cops continue to convert that citable offense into a misdemeanor by manipulating or forcing people they stop into revealing any pot they are carrying, then charging them with publicly displaying marijuana:
Most people arrested for marijuana possession were not smoking it: they typically had a small amount hidden in their clothing, vehicle or personal effects. The police found the marijuana by stopping and searching them (often illegally), or by tricking them into revealing it.
The resulting charges generally do not result in much time behind bars and are often dismissed. But that does not mean the costs they impose are trivial—a point New York Times columnist Jim Dwyer illustrates with the story of Anthony, a 28-year-old black man who was riding in a car that was pulled over in Queens last August for a malfunctioning brake light. The cops found a pipe with what they identified as marijuana residue in the center console and charged Anthony as well as the driver with possessing marijuana "in a public place open to public view." Dwyer explains what happened next:
He immediately lost a job that he had held for seven years as a school bus driver. It had already cost him close to $7,000 in lost wages….
The police officers issued the driver and Anthony desk appearance tickets, meaning they had to appear in court this week, more than two months after the stop.
"I come back to work that Monday, and they said, 'We got to let you go because you've been arrested and your fingerprints came back to us in Albany,'" Anthony said. "They knew the date, the time. They said, 'We'll give you your job back once you prove your innocence.'"
Anthony puts his annual salary at about $40,000. By this week, when the case finally went to court, Anthony was out more than two months' pay. The driver showed up and, in a quick negotiation, pleaded guilty to a traffic violation and agreed to pay a fine of $180. Since Anthony was not behind the wheel, he could not make the same deal.
The district attorney's office offered to dismiss the case in a year if Anthony stayed out trouble. But that would mean a full year out of work. A new offer was made: dismissal after 90 days. That would still be an additional three months of out of work, on top of the two he had already lost. The case was adjourned.
This is precisely the sort of injustice that De Blasio promised to end.