A Change on Marijuana Arrests
September 26th, 2011
With little fanfare, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly has issued an “operation order” that could dramatically reduce the number of marijuana arrests in the city. The order, which appears on WNYC’s web site, says people can be charged with criminal possession of marijuana if they display the drug of their own volition.
Going black at least to 2005, many thousands of New Yorkers have been arrested for criminal possession of marijuana only after the drug was found during a police search. Under the law, people cannot be arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana — less than 25 grams — unless they publicly display it. Possession of such small quantities is punishable buy a fine – of no more than $100. By all accounts, many people – particularly young black and Latino men –- publicly displayed a joint or two only after police asked them to empty their pockets or otherwise searched them. They then found themselves arrested, with a criminal record, and facing punishment or a rehab program they may not need.
This order would seem to end, or at least curtail, that. “A crime will not be charged to an individual who is requested or compelled to engage in the behavior that results in the public display of marijuana,” the order states.
Although the order is written almost as a clarification, the widespread marijuana arrests have almost certainly been a matter of city policy under Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his police commissioner, Ray Kelly.
According to an analysis of city figures by the Drug Policy Alliance, the police department arrested 50,383 people for low-level marijuana offense in 2010 – or 140 a day. This represented a 69 percent increase from 2005.
“Bloomberg’s police have arrested more people for marijuana than Mayors Koch, Dinkins, and Giuliani combined,” Harry Levine, an expert on marijuana arrests who teaches at Queens College, said at the time.
Even though most studies show that whites are more likely to use marijuana than blacks or Latinos, blacks and Latino in poor neighborhood reportedly accounted for 85 percent of marijuana arrests in the city.
In 2008, in a rare statement on the policy, police department spokesman Paul Browne disputed the figures and defended the arrests. “The attention to marijuana and lower level crime in general has helped drive crime down,” he told the Times. (The police department refused at around the same time to provide further details to Gotham Gazette’s Andy Humm.)
Criticism of the city policy has increased recently, with many charging it wastes million of money and criminalizes tens of thousands of young people for behavior that Mayor Michael Bloomberg himself has said he indulged in — and enjoyed.
A bill has been introduced in the state legislature to decriminalize the display of small amount of marijuana, and City Council members have introduced a resolution in support of that.
When the mayor announced his Young Men’s Initiative this summer, many critics noted the actions of his police department seemed at sharp variance with any efforts to help young black and Latino males. “Mayor Bloomberg declared his support for young black and Latino men to the tune of $30 million, but how supportive is he when he spends $75 million to arrest them under this policy?” City Councilmember Jumaane Williams said in a statement last month.
This is the second policy change that could be attributed to the initiative. Last month, Bloomberg issued an executive order that bars city agencies from asking job seekers in their initial application or interview whether they have an arrest record. (For more on that, read City Shuts the Box to Open Job Opportunities.)
On Friday, Williams issued a statement in support of Kelly’s order. “Commissioner Kelly deserves praise and appreciation for directing NYPD officers to enforce the laws on the books regarding marijuana possession,” it said in part “It took leadership to break this disturbing trend of illegal arrests, and I am grateful that he has stepped up to show it.”
Tomorrow, Assemblymember Hakeem Jeffries, a sponsor of the state bill, along with Williams, City Councilmember Melissa Mark-Viverito and advocates plan to gather at One Police Plaza at 1:30 pm. to celebrate Kelly’s and push for changes in the law.
The mayor still has not addressed the overall issue of police stop and frisks. In the first six months of this year, police conducted 362,150 stops, a 13.5 percent jump from the same period in 2010, according to numbers released in August. Ninety percent of those stopped were not charged with a crime or even issued a ticket; 84 percent were black or Latino.By Gail Robinson on September 26, 2011, 3:37 pm
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