Even in the buttoned-down Bloomberg era, New York has held on to its popular reputation for a live-and-let-live attitude. But this alluring image doesn’t jibe with reality when it comes to the city’s hidebound attitudes towards marijuana use. More people are arrested here for pot than in any other place in the world according to the Drug Policy Alliance—and small time pot offenders are consistently the city’s number one source of arrests.
While across the country, local and state governments have been busy decriminalizing or even legalizing pot, New York City hasn’t moved away from the punitive policies of Rudolph Giuliani. In 2011, Bloomberg’s NYPD set a record by attempting to prosecute 50,680 small time users, a number Giuliani would no doubt have applauded. (Between 1978 and 1994, when Giuliani’s first term as mayor began, small time pot arrests had hovered around 2,500 a year; by 2000, Giuliani’s last year in office, annual arrests had reached 50,000.)
For these reasons—not to mention the fact that ours is the only state in the Northeast with a blanket ban on medical marijuana—New York’s pot policies are increasingly the target of reformers. “It’s an utterly backward place,” Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance tells ANIMAL, citing the findings of respected CUNY sociologist Dr. Harry Levine. The “scandalous” status quo is only sustained by its inherent “Jim Crow” characteristics; a whopping ninety-percent of city pot arrests are of African-Americans and Latinos—a rate of arrest frequently seven times higher that for whites.
“Very simply white cannabis users—who are more numerous than those of color—have virtually no interference from cops,” he says. The clear implication is that if the poor and vulnerable weren’t the target of small-time pot enforcement, resistance to it would be much more vocal and powerful.
But as Bloomberg’s last months in office wind down, there are signs of change. Last week, favored Democratic nominee for Brooklyn District Attorney, Ken Thompson, joined a small chorus of politicians, which includes Democratic mayoral candidate Bill de Blasio and his Republican opponent Joe Lhota, in calling for reform in how the city handles small amounts of marijuana, which is defined under a 1977 state law as less than 20 grams. (State Senator Liz Krueger has proposed a bill to fully legalize marijuana for adult use.)
Civil libertarians have been especially critical of the state’s byzantine prosecutorial distinction between possession and display of marijuana, which allows cops to trick potential offenders on the street into emptying their pockets; this puts their pot officially “on display” and constitutes an arrestable offense. These street-level tactics—which go hand and hand with stop and frisk—almost exclusively net suspects of color; from 2007 to 2012, when pot busts increased every year, 80% of these collars were black or Latino. (Although Ray Kelly ordered cops to desist from explicitly tricking potential suspects in 2011 city council members claimed officers mostly ignored the directive.)
Thompson promises that, if elected, he will order his office not to prosecute low-level pot offenders. Recently he told ANIMAL that the glaring racial disparity in marijuana arrests served as a primary motivation for his pledge: “Too many young people are being arrested for low-level drug charges that leave a permanent stain on their records.” Taking a jab directly at his opponent, current Brooklyn D.A. Charles J. Hynes, he added, “These arrests are clogging our court system and diverting police and prosecutorial resources from serious crimes that are on the rise under D.A. Hynes’ watch. (According to official stats 12,732 people were arrested in Brooklyn in 2012 for possessing small amounts of weed.)
Not only do the city’s no-holds-barred pot enforcement efforts seem increasingly out-of-step with the public’s views on the drug itself —a just released Gallup Poll reports that 58% of Americans support legalization—they are far from a bargain for taxpayers. Between 2002 and 2012, the NYPD spent a million hours making 440,000 arrests for low-level marijuana possession charges, according to a report commissioned by The Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Arrest Research Project. This represents a staggering drain on city resources to police something that most people now feel is—at its worst—no more dangerous than alcohol.
The fact that politicians are now calling openly for decriminalization signals a seismic shift in the local debate around marijuana enforcement. De Blasio is most likely our next mayor, and his opposition towards racial profiling is well known. Lhota, a self-declared “social libertarian,” has gone so far as to advocate legalization, although only the state legislature has the power to change the law.
Unlike in other liberal states, most notably California and Colorado, where marijuana laws were upended on a wave of popular support, there is no comparable level of grass roots discontent with the punitive status quo in New York. So don’t expect to see pot dispensaries popping up in Bushwick anytime soon.
But the local electorate seems, at the very least, tacitly behind politicians calling for further decriminalization, and with Bloomberg’s coming exit, the trend is bound to gather momentum. After all, Hizzoner’s animus toward pot reform is so visceral that it sometimes puts him outside the medical consensus. Just last August, he confidently labeled medically prescribed marijuana—now accepted practice in 19 states—as “one of the greatest hoaxes of all time.” Says Sayegh: “It’s an incredibly hypocritical position coming from a guy that touts himself as being pro-science and fact-driven.”