New York – No Progress on Marijuana Arrests

New York — When he ran for mayor, Bill de Blasio condemned police practices under which young black and Latino men were unfairly — sometimes illegally — charged with possessing tiny amounts of marijuana, placing them at risk of losing jobs, access to housing or eligibility for military service even though such charges are often dismissed.

His promise to address this problem was supported in minority communities that bear the brunt of this destructive policy. But a new analysis of state data shows that low-level marijuana arrests during the de Blasio administration have continued at roughly the same level as under former Mayor Michael Bloomberg. That’s not what the voters signed up for.

Since 1977, state law has barred arrests for possession of trivial amounts of the drug unless it is being smoked or displayed in public. In 1990, there were fewer than 1,000 such arrests in New York City. Yet in 2011, that number had shot up to an astonishing 50,000.

By then it was clear that police officers were illegally charging people with “public possession” by tricking them into removing the drug from their pockets during constitutionally questionable searches. Arrests for this misdemeanor dropped to 28,600 last year — still more than any city in the world — after Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly ordered officers to follow the law.

Defense lawyers, however, say that defendants who have noncriminal amounts of marijuana are still being cuffed and taken to jail by officers who purposely seek out concealed amounts of marijuana. This week, for example, Jim Dwyer of The Times reviewed a case in which the occupants of a car were taken to jail for a marijuana pipe — containing only residue — that was allegedly in “public view” when cops riffled through the car and found it.

The new analysis of state arrest data on people caught with tiny amounts of the drug, by the Marijuana Arrest Research Project and the Drug Policy Alliance, shows that between March and August this year, during the de Blasio administration, officers made 15,324 misdemeanor arrests under the statute that contains the “public view” provision — or about 500 more than in the comparable period in 2013, during the Bloomberg administration.

Despite the common argument that such arrests take criminals off the streets, three-quarters of those arrested had no prior criminal conviction. The report notes that the people arrested for marijuana possession “are not criminals; they are ordinary high school and college students and young workers” who will be saddled with arrest records that colleges, employers, landlords, creditors and occupational licensing boards can easily find online.

Race drives arrests, with black neighborhoods having arrest rates many times those of white neighborhoods with residents of the same class and income levels. Moreover, 86 percent of people arrested were black or Latino, despite data showing that whites and minorities use marijuana at similar rates. The report attributes the racial imbalance in arrests to the fact that police officers patrolling white neighborhoods typically do not search the vehicles and pockets of white citizens, thus allowing them to go about their lives without fear of arrest and incarceration.

Mr. de Blasio’s team has produced contrived numbers in an unpersuasive attempt to prove that the arrest picture is somewhat improved. But there’s no hiding the fact that New York City is still administering unfair police practices that disproportionately penalize communities of color and damage the lives of the overwhelmingly young people who are targeted. Public anger around this issue will continue to grow until Mr. de Blasio changes the very ugly status quo.

A version of this editorial appears in print on October 25, 2014, on page A20 of the New York edition with the headline: No Progress on Marijuana Arrests.

Source: New York Times (NY)
Published: October 25, 2014
Copyright: 2014 The New York Times Company
Contact: letters@nytimes.com
Website: http://www.nytimes.com
URL: http://drugsense.org/url/i3uvQ0sK

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