History Suggests Fewer NYC Pot Busts May Not Signal the End of Civilization


New York Times video

Yesterday the New York Police Department announced a new policy under which people caught with small amounts of marijuana in public generally will not be arrested but will instead be cited for a violation punishable by a maximum fine of $100. Police union officials were not pleased. "I just see it as another step in giving the streets back to the criminals," Michael Palladino, president of the Detectives' Endowment Association, told The New York Times. "And we keep inching closer and closer to that."

Palladino's comments were reminiscent of the response from Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, to a recent report that the NYPD will no longer use "buy and bust" tactics to nab small-time pot dealers. "If the current practice of making arrests for both possession and sale of marijuana is, in fact, abandoned," Mullins told the New York Post last week, "then this is clearly the beginning of the breakdown of a civilized society."

Some historical perspective might allay the fears of those who believe that civilization cannot survive a reduction in pot busts. New York's legislature decriminalized marijuana possession way back in 1977, making people caught with up to 25 grams (about nine-tenths of an ounce) subject to the aforementioned fine instead of arrest and possible jail time. Possessing marijuana that is "burning or open to public view," a.k.a. "criminal possession of marihuana in the fifth degree," remained a Class B misdemeanor, punishable by a $500 fine and up to three months in jail. But according to data gathered by Queens College sociologist Harry Levine, arrests for that offense were relatively rare from 1978 until 1997, the fourth year of Rudolph Giuliani's administration, when they increased dramatically from fewer than 10,000 to almost 18,000. After that they kept climbing, peaking at more than 51,000 in 2000 but never again dropping below 27,000.

Marijuana Arrest Research Project

Levine found that the NYPD averaged 2,259 minor pot busts a year under Ed Koch, 982 under David Dinkins, and 24,487 under Giuliani. Michael Bloomberg outdid even Giuliani, presiding over a cannabis crackdown that generated an average of nearly 39,000 low-level possession arrests a year.

There are several possible explanations for this enormous increase in pot busts. Perhaps cannabis consumers suddenly became much more brazen, waving their weed under cops' noses in a way they didn't from 1978 through 1996. Perhaps they always carried their cannabis conspicuously, and cops suddenly decided they would no longer accept such ostentatious violations of the law. Or perhaps cops started to bust people for having marijuana "open to public view" after patting them down or instructing them to empty their pockets during street stops.

Those explanations are not mutually exclusive, but reports from defendants and their lawyers suggest that the practice of transforming violations into misdemeanors by bringing marijuana into "public view" was pretty common. It was common enough to generate an extraordinary 2011 directive from Ray Kelly, Bloomberg's police commissioner, reminding his officers that such trickery is illegal. "To support a charge [of criminal possession], the public display of marihuana must be an activity undertaken of the subject's own volition," Kelly wrote. "Thus, uniformed members of the service lawfully exercising their police powers during a stop may not charge the individual with [criminal possession] if the marihuana recovered was disclosed to public view at an officer's discretion."

It so happens that 2011 was the peak year for pot busts during the Bloomberg administration, so maybe Kelly's memo had an impact. Marijuana arrests fell from more than 50,000 in 2011 to fewer than 29,000 in 2013. The decline also coincided with a sharp drop in stop-and-frisk encounters.

The Times notes that "critics have said the police and prosecutors have been improperly charging people with possession of marijuana in public view, often after officers ask them to empty their pockets during street stops." But yesterday Kelly's successor, Bill Bratton, "said such practices were not now in use and the problem had been fixed." If so, it's a bit mysterious how the new policy will result in fewer pot busts, especially since the NYPD will continue to arrest people who are openly smoking cannabis. Will the impact be confined to people who have removed joints from their pockets but have not lit them yet?

However the NYPD manages it, any reduction in pot busts will be an improvement, and Mayor Bill de Blasio deserves credit for belatedly following through on his promise to change an "unjust and wrong" policy. But if you worry that the shift signals the end of civilization, note that the NYPD could cut low-level possession arrests in half and still bust a lot more pot smokers than it did in any year prior to 1997. 

NEXT: Why Do People Opt Out of Health Insurance? It's Not Affordable, Stupid.

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. How will this affect an officer’s overtime?

    1. ding ding ding ding

  2. While it doesn’t change the graph meaningfully, it would be far better (and make the Baby Edward Tufte cry less) if it showed rates rather than totals over time.

    NYC’s population was not flat over over those 35 years, though its growth does not remotely explain the shape of the graph.

    “Rates, not totals” is almost always the proper approach – and it shows the effect of policy even more strongly than the totals do, here.

    1. True enough, but it looks like the population has only grown ~7.5% since 1980.….._York_City

    2. “”Rates, not totals” is almost always the proper approach.


      I cranked out a chart showing the rate of weed-possession arrests per 100,000 population.

      It isn’t dramatically different

      For the sake of ‘interesting comparisons’, i’ll do another one showing the total crime rate next to it

    3. This is fucking maddening*

      anyway, here’s the chart

      As crime crashed, weed arrests exploded. My interpretation? Cops went after the easiest possible busts to keep their stats up.


      I used to be a @($&*%# ninja in Excel 2003. This shit is just so unwieldy. I’ve got the 2 axes on one side – anyone?? How do i flip it to the right?

      1. 2013 is out you know. You’re driving a 5 year old spreadsheet there. Maybe the oil needs changed and then the axis will flip?

        I hate spreadsheets. I only use them to dump data from SQL queries to do quicky ad-hoc reports for my clients.

        Just Google it, you’ll find it. Microsoft doesn’t like making things intuitive, that’s why they invented the ribbon bar.

        1. Oh I so knew the first douchebag was going to say, “Derrrhh, update excel..” THEN go, “Also, excel is not nearly as good as….” and THEN go, “uh, Google it”, and maybe for bonus points, add “Microsoft Sucks”

          You won a trifecta of ‘unhelpful’. Like those 3 things hadn’t already crossed my fucking mind 100x over.

          here is what i was trying to do

          yes, SQL is better for *data*. When you’re cutting/pasting shit from the internet and trying to chart them? Get back to me when you know a superior platform to Excel.

          And I stand by the argument that 2003 remains the best Excel to-date in functionality and flexibility. this ‘ribbon bar’ menu thing is a goddamn nightmare. I’m furious that things i could do in 10seconds now take me 20 minutes.

          1. Excel is a hateful, terrible application. SQL Server Management Studio is so, so much better.

            1. It does compound charting? (i.e. overlaying styles, multiple axes, custom scales, etc)

            2. Also –

              Can you do financial modeling in SQL? Can you write scripts so it pulls data from online sources and/or interface with Bloomberg terminals?

              Because the last bank i worked at? Used Excel. Oh, wait – that was every place i’ve ever worked.

              1. I can do anything in SQL, it’s what I do.

              2. Can you do financial modeling in SQL? Can you write scripts so it pulls data from online sources and/or interface with Bloomberg terminals?

                That’s what .NET is for. You combine the 2 to do anything that is possible in da whole murl.

                The only reason anyone would use Excel as a development tool is because they don’t know programming, period.

                Sorry to burst your bubble, dude, spreadsheets are for amateurs.

                You know I’m half joking with you I hope, even though I’m also dead serious, and right. Get a beer and relax.

                1. The only reason anyone would use Excel as a development tool is because they don’t know programming, period

                  WTF are you talking about. I work in finance. No one is talking about ‘programming’

                  Spreadsheets may indeed be for ‘amateurs’. Who cares? they’re what people use in the financial world and i’ve never seen a discounted cash-flow model in SQL once in the last 15 years. Show me one so i can see what it looks like?

                  1. There is nothing you can do in Excel that you cannot do in code. There’s no use to argue about that. But there are plenty of things you can code that you can’t do Excel.

                    Relax and have a beer dude, that’s what I’m doing. Cheers.

                    1. “Hyperion|11.11.14 @ 8:54PM|#

                      There is nothing you can do in Excel that you cannot do in code”

                      Thats not what i asked. Show me an example of financial modeling in an SQL file. I can get the app and i want to see what it ‘does’ that provides any advantage. I can find a dozen examples on the net of ‘demo’ financial models in excel. Show me what the SQL version is and I’ll make up my own mind rather than listen to your wax-uselessly more about how Teh Awesomes it is

                      FWIW, financial people (CFAs, CPA, etc) debate this topic HERE, and no one seems quite as impressed as you about the relative merits

                    2. SQL does not have files (it does, but that’s a management issue), it is a relational database. It’s the ultimate repository for anything you ultimately want to see in Excel. SQL people such as myself shape the data for you end consumers, depending on how you want it. That’s where our skill lies. You tell me what you want, and I extract it from the tables/cube/whatever in the shape you want, and you don’t even realize that I’m doing it.

                    3. Yep. My clients are always asking for ad-hoc reports, and since they’re typically very smart people and are good with Excel, I just give them the data they want and they play with it however they want.

                      You can’t store massive amounts of data in Excel. It’s just a tool for end users to play with the data. They don’t have any way to extract it themselves since they don’t really understand the logic behind getting the raw data. They also don’t really understand how the data got there to begin with or how or why it’s structured the way it is.

                      I have one application that uses an object oriented database. That’s some truly fucked up shit. I have to export the data out into a data warehouse using a real time web service so that I can use SSRS for the reporting.

                    4. “You can’t store massive amounts of data in Excel”

                      No one tries to store massive amounts of data in excel.

                      It’s just a tool for end users to play with the data.

                      I know. My point already.

                      They don’t have any way to extract it themselves since they don’t really understand the logic behind getting the raw data.

                      Wrong. the raw data is typically pulled off Bloomberg terminals directly to excel.

                      If there’s no particular advantage to the “playing with data” part w/ SQL? then there’s no advantage at all.

                    5. (Sigh)

                      No, that’s not how people use excel in banks. There’s no ‘central database’ for individual models.

                      the ‘core data’ (if any historical financial 10k/8k info is needed) is either pulled off bloomberg terminals or simply archived locally. There’s no central server providing everyone the same stats. People like to define the data themselves depending on what the purpose is.

                      Anyway, my point was to see an example of how (if) people use it in the way you describe. I’ve used SQL before in various applications myself, particularly for large data sets like Simmons Consumer Research stuff as well as government databases.

                      As far as I can tell from my own looking into the topic (above link) – no one who does financial modeling uses SQL very much – although it is used for some things.

                      If your case was really true, and that SQL was actually a far superior platform for financial data work (*from your POV all ‘data’ work seems the same i suppose?), I do wonder why it never caught on w/ Wall St?

                    6. Thats not what i asked.

                      Gilmore, you need to chill, dude. I’ve been a software engineer for almost 20 years and my current clients include some very large organizations. The group that I work with do every type of programming, including financial stuff, which I’ve done a lot of. There is pretty much not anything I haven’t done software wise, outside of gaming, which I’m just now taking interest in.

                      I know that you can do some cool stuff with Excel. No use to argue about this, it’s silly.

                    7. ” I’ve been a software engineer for almost 20 years and my current clients include some very large organizations”

                      That would be super interesting if anyone started this conversation talking about software engineering.

                    8. FWIW, Excel DOES suck

                      its just that relational databases do not really fix what sucks about it, apparently

                    9. Actually, relational databases have nothing to do with how it sucks. Relational databases are just how the basic data is stored. Like I said above, people like myself and Hyperion know the structure and relation of the data in the relational database and extract it the way guys like you request it (and then you may further manipulate it in Excel, for instance). At the end of the day, though, the data is normalized for the most intelligent storage, and you wouldn’t recognize its structure most of the time. But that’s how databases work.

                      You’re not going to recognize the structure because you’re not tasked with storing it properly. I am. For instance, do you know what foreign keys are? Relational integrity? A primary key? A clustered index? These are all things I have to be on top of, and that you don’t even care about, because that’s not your job.

                    10. I was asking about a comparison on an apples to apples basis on whether one program (SQL) can do the things Excel does (“play with data”) as well or better.

                      i.e. “would SQL be a better environment for building, say – a company discounted cash flow template that is flexible enough to modify dynamically how ever you want for different scenarios?”

                      Those scenarios would be things like, say – a) selling a subsidiary of the business, and quickly showing how it would build back to the topline income statement and future earnings, or B) say, a merger, where the company combines with a different model and its associated forecasts…

                      I’ve never seen anyone doing that kind of work with SQL and don’t have the first clue why they would, and what the benefits are.

                      No one is interested in the things SQL does well that Excel DOES NOT do at all.

                      No one needs the powerhouse data management stuff (which as i noted- i do use SQL for that stuff, but rarely)

                      As for accessing data – most people simply sync to a Bloomberg Terminal for both real-time market data and historical archived financial reporting (although the latter is often done outside that environment as well)

                      Anyway. What Excel currently sucks the most at in my case is – as noted – a) charting, and b) i find that it doesn’t like updating lots of links when you’ve got it connected to the internet to pull down lots of new prices, etc. (i assume this is where .NET would improve things)

                    11. Holy mudder of bejeebus. Ok, this is my final post about this. You do realize that Excel is a software program developed by … ding ding ding chime chime … sirens going off… programmers, right? It’s just a software program, written in code, by programmers. That’s all it is. The rows and columns in Excel were visualized by database developers as a visual representation of fields and records in tables.

                    12. You seem to have gone completely past the point of this discussion – which was the relative merits of one or another piece of code for *doing specific things* – in my case, financial model-building and charting.

                      You (and Epi) seemed to suggest SQL does everything Excel does (And More), and anyone still futzing around with the pile of Fail that is MS Excel is an ‘Amateur’.

                      The more i press the case, the more it seems you’re both just talking out of your asses about actually what the real practical functionality overlap is, and you’re just rah rah about the thing you personally use in your own work. I’ve used SQL in small doses as well, and honestly wanted to know how you thought it applied to financial analysis and why you thought it was superior in that role. Instead you’re harping on about things that have no bearing on the point anymore.

        2. Also, for the record? You know how that got ‘fixed’? Deleted the goddamn thing and started from scratch using the second series as the ‘primary’ data set. It makes no sense, but it worked the second time.

          1. I had the same issue the other day. Used to do a lot of very complex charts back in my reporting days but haven’t had to do any in a while, certainly not since “upgrading” from 2003 to 2007. It was frustrating as I wasn’t trying to do anything complicated at all and it gave me no options that made any sense. I ended up doing two graphs in place of one, which was fine for what was needed but it should have been very simple to combine them and it wasn’t. I’m sure I eventually would have figured it out but it wasn’t worth spending any more time on it.

  3. Was the whole ‘public display of marijuana’ a kind of end run around the fact that Stop’n’Frisk was a well-known New York policy that wasn’t going away?

  4. Or perhaps cops started to bust people for having marijuana “open to public view” after patting them down or instructing them to empty their pockets during street stops.

    I think that’s largely it, because it fits with the whole “broken window theory” and Giuliani-era policing. The cops see some gang members who they know or suspect are up to no good, so they roust them and bust them for pot. It’s a small-scale version of getting Capone for tax evasion.

  5. I used to watch a dude sell weed from a baby carriage outside the Museum of Natural History. I’m pretty sure he had paid off the cops because he was obvious as shit and never got busted. This is solely a policy that lets the cops bust whoever they want, and they don’t want to lose that easy bust.

  6. “Thus, uniformed members of the service lawfully exercising their police powers during a stop may not charge the individual with [criminal possession] if the marihuana recovered was disclosed to public view at an officer’s discretion.”

    If this is the actual wording of the memo, then, it seems to me, that what he’s *actually* saying is that officers MAY, *at their discretion* choose to not charge.

    its pretty fucking weasel-worded. It *seems* to say that people won’t be charged if the cops turn up pot but its extremely, *carelessly* worded. way too much ambiguity for an actual order.

  7. “If the current practice of making arrests for both possession and sale of marijuana is, in fact, abandoned,” Mullins told the New York Post last week, “then this is clearly the beginning of the breakdown of a civilized society.”

    Yep, the only way it could get worse is if cops were held accountable for shooting puppies and innocent civilians and then they stopped cops from stealing the property of people who have not even been convicted of any crime. Then it’s all over, anarchy and barbarism, apocalypse, cats and dogs sleeping together in the streets.

    1. These are the kind of people who believe former Sgt Glans should still have a job and not be facing criminal charges.

  8. I can’t help but notice that of the mayors who were in office when pot busts were low – Beame, Koch and Dinkins – two of the three are dead and all three mayors who busted the weed hard are still alive. Coincidence? I think not – drugs kill!

  9. Oops!

    Rotherham child sex abuse: Police ‘ripped up files’

    In one incident she was subjected to a violent sexual assault by one of her abusers and was left bleeding.

    Carol said: “I told the staff at the children’s home and my social worker and they said a police officer was going to to pick me up and take me to a unit.

    “The officer that used to come to the children’s home [regularly], he came and picked me up in a police car.

    “He took me to a lay-by; kept calling me a liar, saying he’d read my files and that I was a liar and no-one was going to believe me, it was more trouble than it was worth and he ripped my paperwork up.

    “He dropped me back at an Indian restaurant… back with my abuser.”

    Remember: We need government to protect us from rape culture.

    1. Somewhat related:

      “Even as German Prime Minister Angela Merkel hails her as ‘the identity of Pakistan,’ Malala Yousafzai, youngest-ever winner of the Nobel Peace Prize and now a resident of the UK, has become a symbol of malignant Western influence among some factions in Pakistani society. Case in point: on Monday, a group of private schools observed ‘I Am Not Malala Day,’ condemning the seventeen-year-old activist as anti-Pakistan and anti-Islam.”…..hools.html

  10. Is New Repbulic anything other than an outlet for providing writing jobs for retards with a keyboard?

    Don’t worry about the sacred Obamcare, it’s still sacred!

    And we can’t ever rule it even partially unlawful, because that’s immoral!

    6. An Adverse Ruling Would Be Immoral
    Irrespective of the legal questions, and questions about judicial temperament, the justices will be made well aware of the fact that a knee-jerk ruling in favor of the challengers will kill people.


    1. What’s amazing about TNR is that absolutely no one takes it seriously anymore. They lost progressives and other leftists when they became a bizarre warmongering rag that is constantly rattling its sabers at everybody.

      They argued in favor of the Iraq War, in favor of Ukrainian military intervention, in favor of Syrian military intervention, and in favor of the overthrow of Qaddafi.*

      They have basically supported every war the U.S. has even considered engaging in over the last 15 years. They’re bigger warmongers than the Weekly Standard.

      *In fairness, they also published an article against the Qaddafi intervention as part of a point counterpoint. That doesn’t change the fact that a supposedly ‘leftist’ magazine can’t seem to get enough of bombing campaigns.

  11. They’re bigger warmongers than the Weekly Standard.

    That takes some doing. I thought only Hillary was a bigger warmonger than Weekly Standard.

  12. I place these whining cops in the same category as former Deputy Sgt Glans.

    And wish the same for them.

  13. Biting sarcasm throughout. We’ll done Mr. Sullum.

  14. my roomate’s step-mother makes $69 an hour on the computer . She has been laid off for ten months but last month her paycheck was $19776 just working on the computer for a few hours. go now….


  15. Dude you know that is cool right? Wow.

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.