(The full report: Marijuana Arrest Crusade; from ACLU of New York (PDF)
In April 2001, when asked in an interview if he'd ever smoked pot, mayoral candidate Michael Bloomberg replied: "You bet I did. And I enjoyed it." The billionaire mayor's reign, however, has been anything but enjoyable for dope smokers, especially those who aren't white. More people have already been locked up for misdemeanor marijuana possession during Bloomberg's first six years in office -- some 214,300 -- than during any other administration in city history, including the full eight years of former prosecutor Rudy Giuliani.
Blacks and Latinos are disproportionately busted on minor pot charges. That's hardly shocking in a city where the Sean Bell case-yet another instance of an unarmed black person's death at the hands of cops-currently dominates the news.
More people get arrested for misdemeanor pot possession in Bloomberg's New York -- about 35,700 a year, or 97 per day -- than in any other city in the U.S. and "almost certainly" the world, says the author of a new study. (For perspective, when Ray Kelly was police commissioner for the first time in 1993, there were 1,600 misdemeanor marijuana-possession arrests, a pretty typical year back then.) These trippy stats come from "Marijuana Arrest Crusade," a study by Queens College sociology professor Harry Levine and drug-law-reform activist Deborah Peterson Small.
Drug surveys routinely indicate that a higher percentage of whites smoke pot than blacks or Latinos, but Levine found that African-Americans have consistently accounted for about 52 percent of these low-level marijuana arrests over the past decade, even though they're only about 26 percent of the city's population. Latinos, at 27 percent of the total population, account for 31 percent of the arrests. Whites are 36 percent of the population but account for only 15 percent of pot arrests.
That racial breakdown mirrors another set of data that the NYPD has been reluctant to make public: the stop-and-frisk numbers. From 2004 through 2007, police made 1,692,488 stops-ostensibly for suspicious activity. Of those stopped, 51 percent were black, 29 percent Latino, and 10 percent white. A staggering 1,496,100-or 88 percent-of those stopped were never charged.
NYPD officials dating back to the Giuliani years have tried explaining away the skewed stop-and-frisk numbers by saying those percentages are roughly the same as the racial breakdown of suspect descriptions. For some reason, this has remained the pat answer going on 10 years, despite statistics showing that only about 19 percent of total stops were based on suspect descriptions. The majority, records have shown, result from officers' subjective observations, such as "furtive movements," "suspicious bulge," and the always popular "other."
There appears to be nothing even as tenuous as the "suspect description" excuse for the NYPD to fall back on to explain the racial disparities in pot busts. The marijuana-arrest rate for black New Yorkers is five times higher than whites; for Latinos, it's three times higher-despite the fact, as previously noted, that a higher percentage of whites smoke pot, both nationally and in New York.
"I just don't see how they can justify the fact that more whites smoke marijuana than blacks and Hispanics, but more blacks and Hispanics are arrested for it. I just don't know how," Levine tells the Voice.
If the NYPD knows, it's not saying: Its spokesman won't comment. And neither will Bloomberg's aides.
Levine's study also makes the startling claim that most of those who've been busted "were actually not guilty of what they were charged with." Levine says that they estimated, after talking to Legal Aid and defense attorneys, that two-thirds to three-quarters of the people arrested "are not smoking in public," but instead had marijuana in a pocket, purse, or backpack. Possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana is a non-criminal violation -- not even a misdemeanor -- and the cops used to just issue tickets for it. But the arrests cited in Levine's study were all made for having marijuana "burning or open to public view," a misdemeanor charge meant to dissuade open lawlessness.
Levine says that the charge is often achieved through trickery. For instance, according to Levine, the cop tells the person being detained, "Show me what's in your pocket and I'll go easy on you," or may simply order in a loud voice: "Let's see what's in your pockets." When the person pulls out the marijuana, it now becomes the misdemeanor offense of "open to public view."
Levine contends that the skewed racial numbers aren't merely a matter of prejudice by individual cops, but rather a "racially biased, discriminatory, unfair, and unjust" systematic focus within the NYPD on black and Latino young men.
Statistically, there are just as many young white people walking around the Upper West Side neighborhoods near Columbia University with pot in their pockets as there are blacks holding marijuana a few blocks away in Harlem. But Harlem has one of the highest marijuana-arrest rates, while the Upper West Side has one of the lowest.
That's because more city cops are assigned to "high-crime" areas, most of which are disproportionately black or Latino, Levine says. The cops are then pushed to meet Kelly's "productivity goals," which the police union's lawyers contend in pending lawsuits are actually "illegal quotas" for arrests and stop-and-frisks.
"The police catch so many more of one kind of fish because they are mostly searching in certain waters," Levine says.
Marijuana pinches are generally easy and safe, and they provide overtime while giving the appearance of productivity, he says. And who's easier to arrest: young and poor black and Latino men, who Levine says "usually lack the political and social connections that might make the arrests troublesome or embarrassing for the police," or white college kids whose parents can probably afford lawyers who make a living picking apart weak cases?
Whether as a byproduct or by design, these mass pot arrests have enabled the NYPD to add thousands of new names, photographs, and fingerprints to their criminal-record databases. Levine's study found that 60 percent of those arrested on misdemeanor pot charges since 1997 didn't have prior criminal records.
"Marijuana arrests are the best and easiest way currently available to acquire data on young people, especially black and Latino youth, who have not previously been entered into the criminal-justice databases," Levine testified last year at a legislative hearing on a proposal to expand the state's DNA database to include all those arrested for misdemeanors.
Levine argues that this costly enforcement strategy ultimately causes only more problems by "socializing" young blacks and Latinos to the jail culture and making a life of crime more likely, because many places where these young men might otherwise find employment don't hire those with criminal records.
April 30, 2008 -- New York Times (NY)
Column: On Arrests, Demographics, And Marijuana
By Jim Dwyer
Among those washed into Manhattan Criminal Court by the Tuesday morning tides was a 25-year-old man who works in technology support for a large company.
He had been caught with $30 worth of marijuana after his car was stopped on Riverside Drive, an offense against Section 221.10 of the New York State penal code. His case involved surveillance by an unmarked car and two officers who then stayed late into the night processing their prisoner, fingerprinting him, writing a complaint and taking his mug shot.
The court proceeding lasted about 45 seconds. The charges would be permanently dismissed if he stayed out of trouble for a year, which did not appear to be a big challenge, since he had never been arrested before.
If the case seemed like much ado about hardly anything, the laws of the State of New York agree. The city's Police Department and the mayor, however, have other ideas.
A study released Tuesday reported that between 1998 and 2007, the police arrested 374,900 people whose most serious crime was the lowest-level misdemeanor marijuana offense.
That is more than eight times the number of arrests on those same charges between 1988 and 1997, when 45,300 people were picked up for having a small amount of pot.
Here are other figures from the study, which was conducted by Harry G. Levine, a sociologist at Queens College, and Deborah Peterson Small, a lawyer and an advocate for changes in drug laws and enforcement practices.
Nearly everyone involved in this wave of marijuana arrests is male: 90 percent were men, although national studies show that men and women use pot in roughly equal rates.
And 83 percent of those charged in these cases were black or Latino, according to the study. Blacks accounted for 52 percent of the arrests, twice their share of the city's population. Whites, who are about 35 percent of the population, were only 15 percent of those charged -- even though federal surveys show that whites are more likely than blacks or Latinos to use pot.
Among the pretty large population of white people who have used pot and not been arrested for it is Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Asked during the 2001 campaign by New York magazine if he had ever smoked it, Mr. Bloomberg replied: "You bet I did. And I enjoyed it." After he was elected and his remarks were used in advertisements by marijuana legalization advocates, Mr. Bloomberg said his administration would vigorously enforce the laws.
The statistics cited in the report, which were drawn from records kept by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, show that Mr. Bloomberg has kept his word. Although low-level marijuana arrests last year are down from their peak in 2000, they remain at very high levels historically.
In an official comment on the study, the Police Department was critical of the role played by the New York Civil Liberties Union in publicizing the report and noted that the research had been backed, in part, by the Marijuana Policy Project, which supports legalization.
Paul J. Browne, the department's chief spokesman, said that all crime in the city had declined by about 60 percent in the three decades cited in the study. "Attention to marijuana and lower-level crime in general has helped drive crime down," Mr. Browne said.
Mr. Levine said that the only research on the issue suggested that marijuana arrests played little role in driving down serious crime, and may in fact divert police resources.
What of the skewed numbers on arrest by race? Mr. Browne said that it was wrong to use national drug use surveys as evidence of racial bias in New York marijuana arrests. Mr. Levine said that one reason black and Latino men were disproportionally arrested on marijuana charges is that they are the vast majority of those stopped and frisked by police.
More than 30 years ago, legislators and the governor agreed, in broad terms, that the state would no longer jail people in possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The exceptions are that anyone caught "burning" marijuana or with it "open to public view" faces a misdemeanor charge.
The man who appeared in criminal court on Tuesday explained how his pot came to be openly displayed to police officers, even though he was in his car.
"I came out of the building, and this unmarked car, no light, no indication it was police, was right on me," said the man, a Latino who asked that his name not be used because he was concerned about his job. "Right on my tail. An officer got out, he said, 'I saw you walking from that building, I know you bought weed, give me the weed.' He made it an option: 'Give me the weed now and I will give you a summons, or we can search your vehicle and can take you in.' "
He opened the console and handed them his marijuana -- making it "open to public view."
"I was duped," he said. But the deception was legal, and his pot wasn't.
The officers escorted him in handcuffs to the unmarked car.
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