Unite the Two New Yorks: End Discriminatory Marijuana Arrests

It's time for New York to make sure that our police respect our rights and are held to a standard that does not include harassment, abuse and racially biased tactics.
06/18/2012 02:10 pm ET Updated Aug 18, 2012

I love New York City. Besides being the capital of arts, media and culture, it's presented as the capital of possibilities. The possibility that you can come from anywhere in the world and if you work hard and use your talents, you can make it. I dreamed of living here while growing up in Riverhead, Long Island. While it was only a train ride away, the city felt like another universe, illuminated by the bright lights of opportunity.

As an adult, I know now that there are two New Yorks -- and the one you live in depends on factors such as race, ethnicity and socioeconomic status. I have seen the side of the city where people are treated like criminals because of the way they look and the assumed size of their bank accounts. I have seen another side of the city where people trust that they can walk through their neighborhoods without fear of being stopped, harassed and humiliated by police without just cause.

This imbalance is most striking in the policies of the NYPD. In New York, blacks and Latinos are nine times more likely to be stopped by police than their white neighbors. This is a New York where almost 50,000 people were arrested for possession of marijuana in 2010 and -- despite federal data showing that whites are more likely to use marijuana -- 86 percent of those arrested were black or Latino.

The targeting of black and Latino populations through biased law enforcement practices, like the NYPD's "stop and frisk" policy, creates loopholes in our existing laws that continue to darken the line that exists between the two New Yorks: a city for white people and a city for everyone else.

Nearly 700,000 New Yorkers, the majority of them black and Latino, are stopped every year by the police without probable cause or detectable illegal behavior. Once stopped, NYPD policy encourages its officers to conduct unlawful searches and force people to empty their bags and pockets. While it may seem routine in many parts of the country, this particular action can quickly turn a law-abiding citizen into a criminal in New York City.

The possession of small quantities of marijuana was decriminalized in the 1970s, making it a violation roughly equivalent to a traffic ticket. However, if that same amount of marijuana is "publically displayed," it becomes an arrestable offense in the eyes of the law. Police have been routinely abusing this part of the law, forcing people to empty their pockets and charging them with this crime -- even though the marijuana is only in public view because of an unlawful search.

Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a plan to decriminalize such possession. It would reduce the charge from these arrests from a misdemeanor to a violation. This effort does not legalize the drug; it directs the focus of drug-related law enforcement onto the kingpin dealers harming our community. Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and the New York district attorneys all support the proposal, which is currently being considered by the legislature.

Despite this high-level support and the fact that the proposal will reduce burdens on law enforcement and the justice system, State Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos and many of his colleagues are working hard to prevent the bill from passing. Their opposition amounts to nothing less than a call for New Yorkers to be treated differently on the basis of race and where they live. By supporting the status quo, Sen. Skelos is saying that he's fine with white residents using the drug without repercussion while the same action throws black and Latino New Yorkers into the grip of the criminal justice system.

As community members, policymakers and law enforcement alike have attested, this bill will not legalize marijuana. It will not hinder police officers' ability to make legitimate arrests for drug violations. By holding up this law, Sen. Skelos and other members of the Senate succeed only in perpetuating an unjust policy that further disenfranchises low-income and minority communities in New York.

It's time for New York to make sure that our police respect our rights and are held to a standard that does not include harassment, abuse and racially biased tactics. The governor's proposal is an important step in the right direction. The state legislature must pass this 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.