Race and Marijuana Arrests
Mayor Bill de Blasio, who took office in 2014, has made some progress in cutting back on the unfair and sometimes illegal police practices under which thousands of New Yorkers are arrested every year for possessing trivial amounts of marijuana.
But despite research showing that whites and minority citizens use marijuana at similar rates, black and Latino New Yorkers are still far and away more likely to be singled out for low-level arrests that have little public safety value, but seriously damage their lives.
These petty possession cases are typically dismissed after the person stays out of trouble for a year. But during the waiting period, people with otherwise clean records can be denied jobs, housing or entry into the armed services.
This problem dates back to the 1970s, when affluent parents grew angry seeing the futures of their college-educated children ruined as a result of arrests for tiny amounts of marijuana. The New York Legislature responded to this anger by forbidding police officers from arresting people for small amounts of marijuana unless the drug was being smoked or displayed in public.
There were fewer than 1,000 such arrests in 1990. But eventually police officers began to illegally charge people with public display of marijuana after forcing them to remove the drug from their backpacks or pockets. In 2011, an astonishing 50,000 people were arrested on charges of public possession. The number began to plummet under Mayor Michael Bloomberg after the city instructed police officers to obey the state law.
There were just over 26,000 arrests in 2014 — the year Mr. de Blasio took office and introduced a policy under which people with tiny amounts of the drug were typically issued the equivalent of a traffic summons instead of being dragged through the legal system. Last year, there were about 16,600 such arrests.
But the racial disparity in arrests persists. A new analysis of state data by the Police Reform Organizing Project found that about 85 percent of those arrested over trivial amounts of marijuana in the first nine months of this year were black or Latino. It also shows that marijuana arrests edged up by about 12 percent in the first nine months of this year, as compared with the same period in 2015.
Photo credit: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters