By Paul Armentano, NORML Deputy Director
Low level marijuana arrests in New York City rose for the seventh straight year in 2011 to 50,680. The arrest total is the highest total on record since former pot smoker Mayor Michael Bloomberg took office and it is the second highest total of pot arrests ever recorded in the history of the city (just 587 arrests behind the record holding year 2000, when Mayor Rudolph Giuliani oversaw some 51,267 people arrested for marijuana violations).
Shockingly, the near-record high arrest total comes just months after New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly called on officers to cease making marijuana misdemeanor arrests. Apparently, NYPD officers aren’t very good at listening to their commanding officer.
Of course, what is most troubling about these arrest figures is that under state law they largely shouldn’t be occurring at all. Since 1977, New York State law has categorized the possession of 25 grams of marijuana or less as a violation, not a misdemeanor crime. So then how are NYPD making so many misdemeanor pot arrests? By violating the spirit of the law, if not the law itself.
Rather than ticketing low level marijuana offenders, City police for over a decade have been taking advantage of a separate statute, NY State Penal Law 221.10, which makes it a criminal misdemeanor to possess pot if it is ‘open to public view.’ According to an investigation last year by New York City public radio station WNYC, it was determined that City cops routinely conduct warrantless ‘stop-and-frisk’ searches of civilians, find marijuana hidden on their persons, and then falsely charge them with possessing pot ‘open to public view.’
And what has been the result of these illegal ‘stop and frisks?’ A press advisory issued yesterday by the Drug Policy Alliance lists the grim details.
– The NYPD has made more than 100,000 marijuana possession arrests for the last two years; nearly 150,000 marijuana possession arrests in the last three years; and more than 227,000 marijuana possession arrests in the last five years.
– New York City spent at least $150 million in the last two years and has spent at least $340 million in the last five years making marijuana possession arrests.
– In the last decade since Michael Bloomberg became mayor, the NYPD has made 400,038 lowest level marijuana possession arrests at a cost to taxpayers of $600 million dollars.
– Nearly 350,000 of the marijuana possession arrests made under Bloomberg are of overwhelmingly young Black and Latino men, despite the fact that young whites use marijuana at higher rates than young Blacks and Latinos.
– In the last five years, the NYPD under Bloomberg has made more marijuana arrests (2007 to 2011 = 227,093) than in the 24 years from 1978 through 2001 under Mayor Giuliani, Mayor Dinkins, and Mayor Koch combined (1978 to 2001 = 226,861).
Commissioner Kelly’s 2011 memorandum explicitly directed officers to stop charging defendants with criminal misdemeanors in instances where the contraband ‘was disclosed to public view at an officer’s direction.’ Nevertheless, the record number of low level pot arrests appears to be continuing unabated. Most likely, it will take an act of law to stop this practice.
Fortunately, bipartisan legislation is pending in both the New York State Assembly and Senate to stop this disgusting, ongoing practice. Assembly Bill 7620 and Senate Bill 5187 reduce marijuana penalties involving cases where where marijuana was either consumed or allegedly possessed in public from a criminal misdemeanor to a non-criminal violation. Passage of SB 5187 and AB 7620 will save taxpayer dollars, protect New York City’s citizens against illegal searches, and reduce unwarranted racial disparities in arrests by clarifying the law and standardizing penalties for marijuana possession offenses.
If you reside in New York and want to end the City’s dubious distinction of being the ‘marijuana arrest capital of the world,’ then please contact your state elected officials today and urge them to support SB 5187 and AB 7620. You can do so via NORML’s ‘Take Action Center’
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