Last week, I read the new national report released by the ACLU that examined marijuana arrests across the country. While we knew there was disparity, the levels reflected in the report were shocking even to those of us who follow these issues. The report reveals that although Blacks and whites use marijuana at similar rates -- in every part of our country -- Black folks are arrested at nearly four times the rate of whites for marijuana possession. This occurs even in parts of the country with very small numbers of Black residents.
This imbalance is most striking in the state that I and more than 77,000 ColorOfChange members call home -- New York. The targeting of Blacks and Latinos through biased law enforcement practices has split our state in half -- where the New York you live in depends on factors such as race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. Every day, in cities like Buffalo, Rochester, Syracuse, Albany and NYC, Black folks are stopped without any probable cause or suspicion of wrongdoing. Once stopped, officers conduct deeply humiliating and unjust searches, forcing people to empty their bags and pockets, discovering the marijuana, which is now in "plain view" -- turning an otherwise law-abiding citizen into a criminal, and putting their housing, employment and education opportunities at risk.
In 2009, New York made a commitment to expanding drug treatment and alternatives to incarceration by reforming the draconian Rockefeller drug laws. Many thought it was the start of a more progressive approach to drug policy. But four years later, the drug war is alive and well and Black folks are still the targets. Over 85 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession in New York are Black and brown. And these arrests aren't just a problem in New York City. Nationally, of the 15 counties with the highest Black arrest rates for marijuana possession in 2010, three are in New York. In fact, in every single county in New York, Blacks are more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession. This type of inequity should be unacceptable anywhere.
We applaud the NYS Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus, which is heading up a monumental effort to fix the law. And last month, the New York State Assembly demonstrated leadership when they passed a bill to decriminalize possession of marijuana in public view. It would reduce the charge of up to 15 grams of marijuana from a misdemeanor to a violation. The reform measure enjoys broad support of dozens of civil rights groups, a majority of New York voters, and law enforcement officials from across the state.
But despite this broad support, reform hasn't materialized -- maybe because Governor Andrew Cuomo has stopped talking about it. Until recently, the reform measure had the Governor's support; he even included the issue as a top priority in his 2013 State of the State address. But recently he's gone silent on the issue, no longer listing it as an end-of-session priority. And his silence is only emboldening the State Senate leadership. Controlled by the all-white Republican and "Independent Democratic" conferences -- the Senate's leadership coalition has proven ineffective and incapable of representing the interest of Black folks. Their inaction speaks volumes to their comfort with governing a state that treats its Black and Brown residents differently from its white residents.
That's why civil rights groups, and dozens of labor and community organizations are joining together to make a final push for reform before the legislature concludes its session on June 20th. All of us, regardless of race, should expect more from our elected officials. It's time for the Governor to show leadership on this critical measure. And, the Senate must quickly pass the law if New York's residents ever hope to enjoy a shared experience of freedom, regardless of the neighborhood they live in or the color of their skin.
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