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Jesse Levine Headshot

Fixing the Fiasco of the NYPD's Marijuana Arrests

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Two New York State legislators have proposed a simple, effective legislative fix to New York City's 15-year marijuana arrest craze. Senator Mark Grisanti, a white Republican from Buffalo, and Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, a black Democrat from Brooklyn, have together offered legislation that would strike from the law the misdemeanor for simple marijuana possession of less than an ounce. The NYPD made 50,000 of these marijuana possession arrests in 2010 and 500,000 arrests since 1997.

New York City now arrests more people for simple marijuana possession than for any other crime. In 2010, 15 percent of all arrests in New York were for marijuana possession. If enacted, this bill would end marijuana arrests for simple possession and replace the arrests, fingerprinting, 24 hours of jail time and criminal records, with pink tickets, mandatory court appearances and fines.

Grisanti and Jeffries' legislation seeks to address the radical divergence of NYPD practices from the spirit, if not the letter, of New York State law. The legislative intent of the Marijuana Reform Act of 1977 is objectively very clear; "Arrests, criminal prosecutions and criminal penalties are inappropriate for people who possess small quantities of marihuana for personal use. Every year, this process needlessly scars thousands of lives and wastes millions of dollars." The 1977 law sought to eliminate all arrests except for those of people flagrantly smoking in public.

New York City's marijuana arrests and jailings, rising steadily since 2005 under Bloomberg, have inspired growing criticism. Critics point out that pot arrests cost New York City at least $75 million a year, and that police target black and Latino teenagers and young men. Government surveys consistently find that young whites use at least as much marijuana as their black and Latino peers, and probably more, but the NYPD arrests Latinos at 4 times the rate of whites, and blacks at 7 times the rate of whites.

This craze of marijuana arrests has not only drawn criticism to the NYPD for their perversion of the Marijuana Reform Act. The NYPD's stop-and-frisk campaign, which is widely understood as the source of nearly all these arrests, also has drawn strong criticism for its intrusions on the Constitutional right to privacy.

Yesterday the Drug Policy Alliance released an issue brief written by Ira Glasser, the long time executive director of the ACLU and current president of the Drug Policy Alliance, which addresses the Constitutional standards for stop-and-frisks, and the improper use of stop-and-frisks to find marijuana. (Stop, Question and Frisk: What the Law Says About Your Rights) The police made 600,000 stop-and-frisks in 2010 and even Police Spokesman Paul Browne has admitted that marijuana arrests result from stop-and-frisk practices.

Ending the marijuana possession arrests will not stop the police from doing these stop-and-frisks, and finding marijuana on people. If the bill passes, the NYPD can be expected to respond by issuing many tens of thousands of marijuana tickets -- overwhelmingly to the same black and Latino young people they stop-and-frisk.

The harshest consequences under the proposed legislation would befall those who failed to appear to court at their mandatory court appearances. Those consequences are not to be underestimated as an arrest warrant would be issued, any subsequent police stop would result in an arrest -- and often a criminal record.

Senator Grisanti and Assemblyman Jeffries have introduced their bill during a time of outspoken criticism in the mainstream media about what the police are now calling "proactive" practices. The general consensus is more and more clearly in opposition to the massive jailing of people carrying small amounts of marijuana. It is difficult to find support for the NYPD's policy of arresting massive numbers of people for marijuana possession in New York today. Can Assemblyman Jeffries and Senator Grisanti get their colleagues in Albany to see why the critics of these practices are winning this debate?