For decades marijuana arrests have clogged the New York City jail system. A November 2014 shift in policy has provided some much needed relief in recent weeks.
New city policies have shifted towards issuing summonses and violations instead of performing misdemeanor arrests. Individuals found carrying only a very modest amount of marijuana are cited, released and must appear in court at a later date. The number of arrests have decreased dramatically from 1,820 to only 460 in December.
Pro-marijuana activists are not claiming victory yet. Much of the decline in arrests within New York City came after the shooting death of two police officers on December 20th. The numbers are promising but slim in scope, with many hope the numbers will continue to decline as the year goes on.
Possession of less than 25 grams of pot is the lowest level marijuana charge in the city. In 2011, the city experienced its highest marijuana arrest count at 50,700. By 2013, the number had decreased to roughly 29,000 arrests when the public began to take notice of the situation and the overburdened jail system. 2014 saw a 6 percent decrease in similar arrests by the end of the year at a total of 26,400.
The change in policy does not mean the law itself is changing. Current state law still makes it a misdemeanor to have up to 25 grams of pot in public view, but police officers in New York City are now trying to focus on more serious issues by treating marijuana possession as a non-criminal issue. In cases when people are caught smoking marijuana in public, police have been told to still make arrests.
Many critics of Mayor De Blasio say the new policies aren’t enough. More summonses issued, they say, will put the burden on the summons court. The mayor is sticking to the policy because he believes the drop in marijuana arrests will help police deal with more serious issues instead of filling out paperwork and processing inmates for minor offenses.
In 1980, New York City arrested only 1,314 people for marijuana offenses. This number is in stark contrast to the height of the pot arrest levels at 51,267 in 2000. The numbers will continue to decline as the national push for marijuana legalization continues.
In recent months, New York City Mayor de Blasio has received a lot of attention for the large number of marijuana arrests in the city, and the racial disparity demonstrated in those arrests. People are very upset, especially because part of de Blasio’s campaign platform revolved around lowering the unnecessary marijuana arrests in New York City. Timing of the news about the marijuana arrest rate coincided with the explosion of the American Civil Liberties Union report which revealed that black people are almost four times more likely, on average, to be arrested for marijuana than white people. The report was titled, The War On Marijuana in Black and White: Billions of Dollars Wasted on Racially Biased Arrests. This combination of information released caused quite the uproar.
Now, it appears as though Mayor de Blasio has put his foot down in an effort to actually lower the amount of unnecessary marijuana arrests by ordering the NYPD to stop the practice of “buy and bust” weed arrests. An anonymous source told the NY post that during a meeting, representatives from each of New York City’s five districts were collectively told,
“The powers that be don’t want to see any more of these [pot] arrests.”
Buy and bust arrests are undercover operations where an officer purchases marijuana from a dealer on the street in a lower income neighborhood. This initial arrests is used as a jumping off point for police to search the suspect for weapons and to reference police databases for arrest warrants from previous crimes. Then the hope is that this minor pot arrest can lead to a larger bust if the suspect is willing to give up information about other related, or not related, crimes.
According the the NY Post source, during the same meeting, Chief of Narcotics Brian McCarthy instructed each department representative to begin focusing on making arrests for harder drugs instead of marijuana. McCarthy reportedly brought up the abundance of pharmaceuticals and heroin being dealt on the black market, in the city, as a suggested redirection of focus.
The marijuana law reform movement that is sweeping across the United States, and the rest of the world, combined with the information revealed in the ACLU’s report on racial disparity may invoke a similar drug arrest policy change in other law enforcement agencies throughout the nation. It will be very interesting to watch how the views of cannabis in America may shift direction in the next five to ten years.
photo credit: reuters