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Tony Newman

Tony Newman

Posted: October 5, 2009 04:57 PM

Matt Damon, Your Buddy Mayor Bloomberg Is a Hypocritical Drug Warrior

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Actor Matt Damon supports Mayor Michael Bloomberg's bid for re-election. Last month, Bloomberg touted Damon's endorsement in a cute video, in which Bloomberg pleads for Damon's support because the actor is a popular star whose views people trust. While the video has a joking tone, Bloomberg is dead serious in his all-out war for re-election.

The New York Times reported that Bloomberg is leaving nothing to chance, turning on his spigot to drown out his chief mayoral opponent William Thompson. Bloomberg has already shelled out $65 million -- 20 times what Thompson has spent -- and is breaking campaign spending records.

I have to admit that I'm disappointed to see Matt Damon jumping on the Bloomberg bandwagon. Matt Damon is a likable guy who seems to have his heart in the right place. I loved the movie Good Will Hunting and the back story that he and his buddy Ben Affleck wrote and starred in the movie. Damon and Affleck are Massachusetts kids who have campaigned for Democratic candidates, including Sen. John Kerry and President Obama.

It makes total sense that Bloomberg would try to beef up his hip and liberal credentials with a Damon endorsement.

But what may not be clear to Matt Damon, an admitted marijuana user, is that despite the mayor's "moderate" and "independent" reputation Bloomberg is a full-fledged drug warrior who has overseen more low-level marijuana arrests than any other elected official in U.S. history!

More than 870,000 people a year are arrested on marijuana charges in the United States -- 89% for simple possession alone. And while New York has a reputation as a tolerant and open-minded city -- and New York state effectively decriminalized simple possession of up to 25 grams of marijuana more than 30 years ago -- Gotham has made so many pot arrests that it now has the unfortunate distinction of being the marijuana arrest capital of the world.

According to a report released last year by Harry Levine and Deborah Small of the New York Civil Liberties Union, New York City police have arrested more than 300,000 people for low-level, misdemeanor marijuana possession since 1997.

Levine just released new data showing that in 2008, the number of arrests for possessing a small amount of marijuana in New York City soared to 40,300 people, most of them teenagers and young adults under 26 years old. What's more, in the 12 years between 1997 and 2008, the NYPD made more than 10 times the number of pot possession arrests than in the previous 12 years.

Prior to 1997, the lowest-level marijuana arrests were 1% of all arrests in the city. Since 1997, marijuana arrests have averaged 10% of all arrests in the city. If possession of marijuana is supposed to be decriminalized in New York, how does this happen? Often it's because, in the course of interacting with the police, individuals are asked to empty their pockets, which results in the pot being "open to public view" -- which is, technically, a crime.

New York City's marijuana arrests also show stark racial disparities. In 2008, 87% of those charged with pot possession were black or Latino. These groups represent only about half of the city's population, and U.S. government surveys consistently find that young whites use marijuana at higher rates than blacks and Latinos. Yet blacks and Latinos are arrested for pot at much higher rates, in part because officers make stop-and-frisk searches disproportionately in black, Latino and low-income neighborhoods.

Once someone is convicted of a drug offense, they can lose college financial aid, food stamps, public housing and, in some cases, even voting rights. Money wasted and lives ruined ... and for what?

There is growing momentum to change our ineffective marijuana policies. Elected officials from California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to New York Gov. David Paterson have said that marijuana legalization should be considered and debated. Forty-eight percent of Americans in East Coast states support taxing and regulating marijuana the same way alcohol is. A bill pending in the California Legislature to tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol is garnering national attention.

Meanwhile, some Oakland, California, activists aren't waiting for their legislature in Sacramento to act; they have drafted a voter initiative and are gathering signatures to qualify it for the 2010 ballot.

New York is swimming against the tide. While Bloomberg has admitted to smoking marijuana and even said he enjoyed it, tens of thousands of other New Yorkers are being arrested and jailed in a shameful example of a destructive and ineffective policy.

Matt Damon, Bloomberg seems to care what you think. Maybe you can tell him that you don't approve of a policy that is arresting tens of thousands of New Yorkers a year for doing something both of you have done.

Tony Newman is the director of media relations for the Drug Policy Alliance Network (www.drugpolicy.org)