by Phillip Smith
New York City has the dubious -- and well-earned -- reputation as the world's marijuana arrest capital, with more than 50,000 people being arrested for pot possession there last year alone at an estimated cost of $75 million. It also has a mayor, Michael Bloomberg, who has famously said he smoked marijuana and enjoyed it, yet who presides over a police force that has run roughshod over the state's marijuana decriminalization law in order to make those arrests, almost all of which are of members of the city's black and brown minority communities.
On Thursday, activists and concerned citizens organized as the New Yorkers for Health & Safety campaign marched to the mayor's home, an apartment building in Manhattan's Upper East Side, to call him on his hypocrisy, chastise the NYPD for its racially-skewed stop-and-frisk policing, and demand that the city quit wasting tens of millions a dollar a year on low-level marijuana arrests even as it proposes cuts to other vital New York City services.
The campaign, consisting of members of the Drug Policy Alliance, VOCAL-NY, the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives, the Marijuana Arrest Research Project, and Women on the Rise Telling Her Story (WORTH), among others, brought out dozens of people for a march to the mayor's residence, followed by a brief rally. Protestors, some wearing Mayor Bloomberg masks, held signs and chanted as they rallied across the street from the apartment building.
"Bloomberg is doing more than wasting $75 million a year on marijuana arrests, he is wasting the future our youth," said Chino Hardin, lead know-your-rights trainer for the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives. "We don't want kids using drugs, so why not put money into real programs that will help them make better choices, not give forever lasting criminal records."
Under New York state law, the possession of small amounts of marijuana is decriminalized, punishable by a ticket and fine. But NYPD practice, designed to get around that law and generate arrests, is to stop-and-frisk citizens going about their business, almost always young people of color, order them to empty their pockets (which they are not required by law to do), then arrest them for possession of marijuana in public when a baggie containing weed emerges. That is not an infraction, but a misdemeanor, and the victims are then arrested and jailed, typically for 24 hours or more, before being arraigned and released.
Last year, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly ordered an end to that practice, but that has yet to be reflected in declining marijuana possession arrest numbers. And those numbers are huge: In addition to the more than 50,000 arrested last year, another 350,000 have been arrested since Bloomberg took office in 2002, at an estimated cost to the city of $600 million.
Even though whites use marijuana at higher rates than any other ethnic or racial group, nearly 85% of those arrested for pot possession are black and Latino, and most are under 30. Being arrested for pot means more than a day or so in jail; it also creates a permanent criminal record that can easily be accessed by employers, landlords, schools, credit agencies, licensing boards and banks, damaging the life prospects of those saddled with a rap sheet.
"For a mayor who celebrates diversity as a key staple of the city, he sure has a horrible way of demonstrating his appreciation for certain communities in our City," said Kassandra Frederique, policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance. "Black and Latino New Yorkers cannot walk down the street without fear of being stopped, frisked, illegally searched, and then falsely charged and arrested for something that was decriminalized over 30 years ago. This is costing us millions of dollars as taxpayers. It's an insult, and must end now."
Mayor Bloomberg last year launched a new $130 million Young Men's Initiative, "the nation's boldest and most comprehensive effort to tackle the broad disparities slowing the advancement of black and Latino young men," but continues to preside over a marijuana arrest policy seemingly designed to increase those disparities. That makes the mayor a hypocrite, the protestors charged.
"Mayor Bloomberg is talking out of both sides of his mouth when it comes to helping young Black and Latino men like me," said Alfredo Carrasquillo, a community organizer for VOCAL-NY who has been targeted under stop-and-frisk practices, illegally searched and falsely arrested for marijuana possession. "The money for his Young Men's Initiative goes to waste along with the taxpayer dollars he's wasting on pursuing his marijuana arrests crusade in my community."
"New York City is spending $75 million dollars a year to arrest and prosecutor mostly young people of color simply for possessing marijuana -- which is not a crime in New York State." said Harry Levine, Queens College Professor and founder of the Marijuana Arrest Research Project. "It is long past time for this outrage to stop."
It isn't just activists who have taken notice. Lawmakers in Albany have crafted bipartisan legislation, Assembly Bill 7620, introduced by Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries (D, WFP-Brooklyn), and companion measure Senate Bill 5187, introduced by Sen. Mark Grisanti (R-Buffalo), that would standardize marijuana possession penalties statewide, enforcing the original legislative intent of the 1977 decriminalization law. Dozens of New York City council members have signed onto a resolution supporting those bills and calling to end to the mass marijuana arrests.
"The explosion of low level marijuana arrests in New York City is a tremendous waste of precious law enforcement resources and needlessly scars thousands of young lives," said Jeffries. "Our legislation is an additional step toward a more equitable criminal justice system that treats everyone the same, regardless of race or socioeconomic status."
Activists in the city aren't waiting for Albany to ride to the rescue. They are planning more street actions, including one next month, said the Drug Policy Alliance's Frederique, and they're looking for some white guys.
"We will be having an action in April, but haven't yet decided on the date and location, or the exact nature of the action," she said. "We're trying to get white men under 30 to show up, since those are the people who actually smoke marijuana, but don't get arrested. And we are cordially inviting New York City's most famous pot smoker, Mayor Bloomberg, to attend."
An organizing meeting for the April action will take place next Wednesday, April 4, at 113 West 13th Street in Manhattan. Contact the organizations linked to above for more information.