A new marijuana arrest policy in New York, America’s largest city, is being applauded by civil rights advocates who say it will reduce alleged discrimination against black and Latino youth. Opponents of the old policy say it had negative implications not only for employment and housing opportunities of those arrested, but for the city's law enforcement budget as well.
More than 50,000 people were arrested on misdemeanor marijuana charges in New York City last year, enough to fill any local stadium to capacity. Most of them were black or Latino males.
Under a 1977 New York State law, possession of any amount of marijuana that is in public view can result in a three-month jail sentence and a $500 fine. City police officers, engaging in a controversial law enforcement technique known as stop-and-frisk, told people to empty their pockets even if they were not suspected of a crime. That would sometimes bring marijuana into public view, which resulted in an arrest.
Last week, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly issued a memo that said individuals may not be arrested if the drug “was disclosed to public view at an officer’s discretion.”
Speaking near Police Headquarters at a small rally of civil rights and pro-marijuana activists, state assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries said Kelly’s decision represents a step toward an equitable criminal justice system.
“It cannot be criminal for one group of people, and socially-acceptable for another if the dividing line is race," said Jeffries.
Jeffries added that many white college students also have marijuana in their pockets, but are not asked to empty them.
Activists note that marijuana arrests skyrocketed under Mayor Michael Bloomberg to more than twice what they averaged under his predecessor. Bloomberg also stands accused of hypocrisy, having famously responded to a question if he ever smoked marijuana, “You bet I did. And I enjoyed it.”
Alfredo Carrasquillo, a community organizer for VOCAL-NY, an advocacy group that deals with drug issues, says a misdemeanor charge can devastate a young person’s life. He was first arrested for marijuana possession when he was 14.
“Because I am constantly being targeted and profiled, it is hard for me to maintain lawful employment, it is hard for me to maintain rent for an apartment, and it is hard for to maintain being in school," said Carrasquillo.
New York spends about $75 million per year pursuing misdemeanor marijuana charges. Activists say that money can be better spent on other law enforcement issues.
Hakeem Jeffries is sponsoring a bi-partisan bill that would reduce open possession of small amounts of marijuana from a misdemeanor to a violation. The Bloomberg administration opposes the measure. Mayoral assistant Frank Barry has said that reducing the offense would encourage marijuana use in public places, and reverse efforts to clean up neighborhoods and eliminate open air drug markets.
Jeffries says violators could still be arrested, but they would not be stuck with charges that have lasting consequences for child welfare, student loans, and employment.
The U.S. government survey on drug use indicates marijuana is America’s most commonly used illicit drug. Last year, an estimated 17.4 million people said they had used it in the past 30 days.