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Ezekiel Edwards

NYC: Home to the Most Marijuana Arrests in the World (but don’t worry, white people, it won’t be you)

With the NYPD facing difficult challenges such as combating terrorism and stopping the flow of illegal handguns into the city, what are the police arresting people for at a rate ten times greater than before 1997? Marijuana.

But they aren't arresting everyone who possesses marijuana; only poor people of color.

When confronted with statistics demonstrating the grossly disproportionate arrest rates of African Americans, often conservatives are quick to respond that African Americans commit more crimes.

But then how would they explain the epidemic of marijuana arrests in New York City over the past ten years, a plague of over-policing that has swept up poor people of color, sending Blacks and Hispanics to jail for misdemeanor marijuana offenses at rates far greater than those of whites, even though, according to the U.S. government, whites use more marijuana per capita than Blacks and Hispanics? If you don't think such arrests ever happen, you might be surprised to learn that in the last ten years, New York City has arrested more people for marijuana than any city, not just in New York State, not just in the Northeast, not just in America, but in the entire world.

graph of arrests.JPG

How would conservatives respond to Professor Harry Levine's testimony in May 2007 before the New York State Assembly Committees on Codes and on Corrections (regarding proposed legislation to expand the DNA databank by requiring anyone convicted of a misdemeanor marijuana offense to give a DNA sample)?

For two years. Professor Levine has researched marijuana arrests and convictions in New York City. Here is some of what he found:

Between 1997 and 2006, 360,000 people were arrested and jailed for marijuana offenses in NYC , ten times more than had been arrested the decade previous. That means 100 people a day in NYC are handcuffed and thrown in jail, where they sit, for at least 24 hours, sometimes 36, sometimes 48, waiting to appear before a judge to answer for their "crime".

To figure out who is getting arrested most frequently for marijuana offenses, you might just figure out who possesses and uses marijuana most often, right? Among high school students and young adults, for instance,a higher percentage of white people use marijuana than Blacks and Hispanics.

Since the majority of those arrested in NYC are between the ages of 16 and 26, it follows that whites must be bearing the brunt of NYPD’s marijuana arrest mania, right? Wrong.

In fact, 85% are Black and Latino (55% and 30%, respectively), 15% are white. 12th grades percentage of drug use.JPG

Put another way, for every 100,000 whites, 124 were arrested. For every 100,000 Hispanics, 430 were arrested. For every 100,000 Blacks, 975 were arrested. So blacks were arrested at eight times the rate of whites.

Even without the statistics, does that sound representative of the percentage of marijuana users in this city if categorized by race? Does anyone think that blacks possess marijuana at eight times the rates of whites? If so, then you haven't been into white homes across New York City, from the two-bedroom apartments on the Upper West Side to West Village lofts to parties in Chelsea to Williamsburg walk-ups to Park Slope brownstones to residences in Astoria and Jackson Heights.

And yet, the NYPD arrest blacks at a rate more than double the percentage of their overall population in every borough other than the Bronx.

Are people arrested moving pounds of marijuana across state lines? Hardly. Most of those arrested were not event smoking in public; rather, they were in possession of a few grams or a small plastic bag the size of a quarter, or simply standing near someone in possession.

As a public defender, it was inevitable that in any given 8-hour arraignment shift, I would encounter a pile of marijuana cases. All misdemeanors, all for possessing a bag, or maybe two bags, or for smoking a marijuana cigarette, and all those arrested Black and Latino.

Why is it that poor Blacks and Latinos have to miss work, lose jobs, miss school, be away from their families, pay fines, do community service, sometimes get criminal records, spend a day or night (or both) in jail, for possessing marijuana, yet middle- and upper-class whites throughout the city smoke marijuana routinely, or carry it on the street, or have it home delivered, and never face the same consequences? Most whites are not even concerned with such consequences, since they never face them.

If the police patrolled Columbia University and NYU the way they patrolled the South Bronx (i.e., stopping people on a whim, unconstitutionally searching them, sending undercover officers to perform marijuana transactions, etc.), they would fill the Manhattan jails so quickly that the system would screech to a halt. But that is not going to happen. White college students can continue behaving exactly as their Black and Latino counterparts in other neighborhoods, breaking the same laws, and while they sit back laughing at silly movies while eating Doritos, throughout the city poor people of color sit in roach-infested jails for hours waiting for a lawyer to get them out of jail, even if it means paying a hefty fine, or cleaning the subway, or receiving a lifelong criminal record.

There is only one reason why the police under-enforce marijuana laws at Columbia University, where marijuana possession and use is abundant, such that the marijuana arrest rate is one of the lowest in the city, and over-enforce the same laws in adjacent communities like West Harlem: the former is predominantly white and well-off, the latter is overwhelmingly minority and poor. Talk about two Americas.

Why does NYC have such an outlandish and discriminatory policy regarding marijuana arrests? Professor Levine notes that with so little media coverage on the issue, and silence from the NYPD and the Mayor's Office, it is difficult to pinpoint the reason. But here are a few of Professor Levine’s educated guesses:

1) Marijuana arrests are generally easy, clean, and safe.
2) Police officers are underpaid, and marijuana arrests are a way to build overtime hours, hence increase their pay (not to mention increase their chances for promotion). This also helps supervisors build overtime hours.
3) Marijuana arrests are an easy way for the NYPD to gather information on young people of color in poor neighborhoods, as each arrest involves the acquisition of pedigree information, fingerprints, photographs, etc.

Regardless of the twisted purposes behind such policies, marijuana arrests are so common in certain communities that they have simply become part of everyday life, and almost everyone involved, from the police to the residents to the judges to the lawyers, are so accustomed to them that they hardly take notice. Where is the outrage?

How can I, at one moment, be staring at a jail cell full of young Black and Latino men arrested for marijuana possession, and in the next moment, after a short subway ride, be at a predominantly white dinner party where marijuana (among many other things) is being delivered, possessed, and used with impunity?

My solution is not to increase arrests of all marijuana possessors and users (although arrests en masse of white college students would be the quickest way to grab the attention of wealthy and influential white people and spell the policy's quick demise). Rather, the police and the Mayor should shift their money, resources, and tactical priorities to more serious matters, such as violent crime, domestic violence, gun selling, and terrorism, for example, and leave poor people of color alone on the marijuana issue.

As it is today, one has to wonder, what on earth are the police and the Mayor smoking?

Ezekiel Edwards: Author Bio | Other Posts
Posted at 8:55 AM, Oct 02, 2007 in Criminal Justice | Prisons | Racial Justice
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