By Gabriel Sayegh
A new report by the Drug Policy Alliance and the Marijuana Arrest Research Project documents the astonishing number of hours the New York City Police Department has spent arresting and processing people for low-level misdemeanor marijuana possession over the last 11 years. The report, “One Million Police Hours,” finds that the NYPD used approximately 1 million hours of police officer time to make marijuana possession arrests during the tenure of Mayor Michael Bloomberg.
These are lost hours that might have been spent solving serious crimes. And those arrested spent nearly 5 million hours in police custody over the last decade. That, too, is lost time.
The report comes at a time when both the police and marijuana laws are being heavily scrutinized. Community groups in New York City packed the court for the David Floyd case, dealing with NYPD’s notorious “stop-and-frisk” practices. In Albany, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and leaders from the Senate and Assembly are in negotiations about including Cuomo’s proposal to fix the state’s marijuana law.
Although New York decriminalized possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana back in 1977, it authorized the police to charge a person with a crime if the marijuana was “in public view.” Police in New York City use this loophole to make arrests for marijuana possession. During a stop-and-frisk encounter, officers order the person to empty their pockets or bag, and if marijuana is revealed, the individual is arrested for possession “in public view.”
Since Bloomberg became mayor in 2002, the NYPD has made 440,000 marijuana possession arrests – more than mayors Koch, Dinkins and Giuliani combined. Nearly 70 percent of those arrested are younger than 30. These people receive a permanent criminal arrest record, which can be easily found on the Internet by employers, banks, schools, landlords and others. And even though young whites use marijuana at higher rates, more than 85 percent of the people arrested and jailed for marijuana possession are black and Latino. And for all this, New York taxpayers pay more than $75 million per year.
Reacting to pressure, Bloomberg recently announced administrative changes to how police will process marijuana arrests. But this move does not change the law itself and will not stop the arrests.
Nearly 125 community organizations from across New York have called for fixing the marijuana law, and they’re joined by NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly; district attorneys from across the state; police leaders from around the state; and even Bloomberg himself. In poll after poll, a majority of New Yorkers – including Republicans – endorse the governor’s decriminalization plan. But all too often in Albany, both common sense and justice are in short supply. Reform is never, ever easy.
Gabriel Sayegh is the New York State director for the Drug Policy Alliance.