NYC Marijuana Arrests Have Dropped, but Policing Still Targets Minority Groups

Low-level marijuana arrests in New York City decreased 90 percent after new police guidelines took effect this past September, according to a new Politico report based on New York Police Department data. The entire city had about 151 arrests that month, compared to over 1,500 in September 2017.

This is after New York Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill announced in June a new policy to decriminalize public marijuana use by issuing citations instead of making arrests. New Yorkers who use marijuana, however, are still subject to arrest if they are for instance on on parole or probation, have an outstanding criminal warrant, or are driving a car.

But racial disparities in marijuana enforcement continue, with Black and Latino people accounting for about 80 percent of the 1,000 marijuana summonses issued. “The 90 percent drop in marijuana arrests in New York City is a positive development that will have a profound impact on the lives of New Yorkers,” said Kassandra Frederique - New York State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “But the summonses issued can turn still into open warrants and have harmful impacts, which advocates and City Council will continue to examine.”

Frederique urged the newly re-elected Governor Andrew Cuomo and his new Democratic majority in the New York state legislature to take immediate action and legalize adult-use marijuana in New York through the Marijuana Regulation And Taxation Act. On November 6, 2018, the Democratic Party won at least 35 of the 63 State Senate seats, gaining control of all three chambers of government (four Senate races remain too close to call).  

In August, Governor Cuomo announced his appointment of a special panel to draft legislation to legalize marijuana in the new legislative session. This was after the state Department of Health released a study earlier in the summer finding that regulation of marijuana would benefit public health. No doubt, Cuomo was encouraged to make progress on this issue after his high-profile gubernatorial primary challenger, Cynthia Nixon, made marijuana legalization a key issue of her campaign.

Levele Pointer, a criminal justice reform advocate with Voice of Community Activists & Leaders (VOCAL-NY), says that racial disparity in marijuana enforcement is an issue of neighborhood policing. "We have a stronger police presence in Black and Latino neighborhoods," he said. "They don’t see Black and Latino people as productive members of society, and think they’re more deserving to be summoned than others.

“Marijuana opens the door for police," Pointer added. "They see a group of guys sharing a joint, and think they must be up to something. In a white neighborhood, police might see someone smoking on the stoop and just drive by and not say anything.”

Kamani Jefferson, a cannabis lobbyist and co-founder of the Massachusetts Recreational Consumer Council (MRCC), said that continued local marijuana activism is needed. “As a Brooklyn native, this news really hits home,” he said. “New York’s policy on cannabis is atrocious and has always been linked to race and class. The local cannabis industry must bring shared wealth and equity, especially to those who have been most damaged by the war on drugs.”

“Legalizing weed won't end racism overnight,” added Jacob Plowden - co-founder of New York-based Cannabis Cultural Association. “We are still seeing racial disparities in arrests and summonses in Black and brown communities in states like Colorado. This is why organizations like my own and MRCC continue to educate and advocate for better long-term policy. People here in New York want to know what laws we are creating and how they will affect everyone.”

In this spirit, the Drug Policy Alliance is continuing to push for more aggressive reform. They plan to bring a delegation to the state capital in Albany on December 11 and 12, as part of their SMART NY campaign to legalize marijuana in New York.

Pointer described his roadmap to undoing the damage of marijuana prohibition in his state: “Recreational legalization is a must,” he said. “Additionally, anyone since 1977 who’s had a marijuana arrest, must have that expunged from their record. And anyone who served jail time or was incarcerated for it must be given reparations.”

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