Advocates Demand a Comprehensive Overhaul of New York’s Racially Biased and Broken Marijuana Policies
NEW YORK- New York City Comptroller John Liu announced the release of a report calling for a system to tax and regulate marijuana for adult recreational use. The report, to be released tomorrow, comes two days after Federal Judge Shira A. Scheindlin condemned the city’s police department’s use of stop and frisk – which has resulted in 600,000 unlawful arrests for marijuana possession since 1997 – as racially-biased. That same day, U.S. Attorney General Eric Holder called for Americans to rethink the “unintended consequences” of the war on drugs. Comptroller Liu’s report details the problems associated with marijuana arrests in New York City — including racial disparities and the impact of saddling young people with a permanent criminal arrest record — and the overall financial costs of marijuana prohibition.
The report comes at a time when the federal government and states around the country are engaged in a significant review of drug policies generally and marijuana policies in particular. On Monday, Attorney General Holder noted that the war on drugs has resulted in “the decimation of certain communities, in particular of communities of color” and directed federal prosecutors to develop guidelines for some drug sentencing issues to be handled on the state or local level. Many states have already moved ahead with significant reforms to marijuana policy. Twenty states now permit the use of medical marijuana; fourteen states, including New York and, most recently, New Hampshire, have some kind of decriminalization law on the books; and voters in two states – Colorado and Washington – voted to end prohibition by taxing and regulating marijuana for recreational use for adults over the age of 21. By creating a regulatory regime, Colorado and Washington are bringing under the rule of law the production, sale and use of marijuana. Recent national surveys find that a majority of Americans now favor the legalization of marijuana.
“New Yorkers, like people elsewhere around the country, are questioning our broken polices related to marijuana,” said gabriel sayegh, New York Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Comptroller Liu’s report offers another important opportunity for New Yorker to examine the issues and discuss the range of options for fixing these laws. An increasing number of elected officials in the City and state agree that our marijuana policies are broken—resulting in racial disparities, Constitutional violations, fiscal waste and needless suffering. While there may not be widespread agreement about how to fix these problems, it’s critical that we have an open and vigorous debate about the issue.”
Fixing New York’s marijuana policies is urgently needed. New York arrests more people for marijuana possession than any state in the country, including California, Florida and Texas. According to a recent ACLU report, New York’s marijuana possession arrest rate is 535 per 100,000, more than double the national rate of. In 2010, 97% of all marijuana offenses in New York were for possession only. The vast majority of those arrested (85%) are Black and Latino, mostly young men, even though numerous government studies report that young white men use marijuana at higher rates.
Marijuana policy is also being debated, examined and revised at the international level. In May, the Organization of American States produced a report, commissioned by heads of state of the region, predicting a likely hemispheric move towards marijuana legalization in the coming years. And in an effort to undercut the violence related to drug prohibition, the Uruguayan House of Representatives recently approved a bill to legally regulate marijuana and create the world’s first government-regulated system of production, distribution and dispensing.
Studies show that criminalizing and arresting people for marijuana possession does little to prevent the use of marijuana. In national surveys, young people consistently report that it’s easier to buy marijuana than alcohol, and under our current punitive system of prohibition, 20.5% of New York high school students report using marijuana in the past 30 days versus the 12.5% who have used cigarettes, which are carefully regulated. Many experts see the taxation and regulation of marijuana as a more effective way of controlling teen use than our current failed approaches.
Studies have also shown that these arrests have no public safety value. A recent report showed that the vast majority of people who enter the criminal justice system with an arrest for public possession of marijuana rarely go on to commit violent crimes. However, these arrests exact a profound human toll and can have far-reaching adverse consequences for those arrested, including lessening their opportunities for employment, education, housing, and loans.
The ACLU estimates that New York state spends approximately $675 million a year enforcing marijuana possession laws – most of these arrests occur in New York City. Fixing New York’s marijuana laws would save hundreds of millions every year, which could be reinvested into the community increasing the quality of life for all New Yorkers. By enacting a regulatory framework, the City and state could capture tax revenue that is, currently, largely under the control of criminal enterprises.
Legislators in Albany have been taking steps to address the many problems in New York’s current marijuana policies. Last year, the Governor proposed a bill to address police misconduct and racial disparities in marijuana arrests by standardizing some marijuana possession laws, making possession of marijuana in public view a violation, rather than misdemeanor. Legislators continue work to pass a medical marijuana proposal, with the Assembly passing a tightly-crafted bill earlier this year. And this spring, Senator Liz Krueger announced that she intends to introduce a bill that will tax and regulate marijuana like alcohol in New York State. At the City level, the NY City Council has passed resolutions in favor of state legislation both to allow access to medical marijuana and standardize possession of marijuana in public view. And New York City mayoral candidates, such as Democrat Sal Albanese and Republican Joe Lhota, have called for the full legalization of marijuana.
“The data are clear – our current marijuana policies are doing more harm than good. They’re racially biased, ineffective, wasteful, and counterproductive,” said sayegh. “We need to rethink how we can enhance the health and safety of all New Yorkers through sensible reforms, informed by research and sound science. Sensible reform makes good moral and monetary sense; we can address human costs as well as save millions that can be reinvested in our communities. Tackling these issues will require a vigorous, respectful debate. Hopefully this report and other emerging developments – from Holder’s comments to Judge Scheindlin’s ruling on top and frisk to emerging reforms at home and abroad – will spur such a discussion, because we can do better, and in fact we must.”