Responding to Public Pressure, Police Ordered To Not Arrest People if Marijuana Not in Plain View
Advocates Applauds New Directive, Which Could End Tens of Thousands of Illegal Arrests
NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly issued an internal order this week commanding officers to follow existing New York State law by ending arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana — as long as the marijuana was never in public view. The order does not change the law itself — but simply instructs officers to comport with the law. This could result in tens of thousands fewer marijuana arrests annually in New York City.
The announcement comes on the heels of growing pressure on the NYPD. A campaign led by the Drug Policy Alliance, the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives, and VOCAL has gained the support of City Council members and state legislators. DPA issued a series of reports prepared by the Marijuana Arrest Research Project that highlight the cost and scale of the arrests. Their latest report, released in March, found that arrests for marijuana possession cost New York City taxpayers approximately $75 million each year.
While advocates applauded the move by Commissioner Kelly, they also expressed caution:
"This represents a tremendous victory for the many New Yorkers who are fighting to end the NYPD's notoriously wasteful, illegal and racially discriminatory marijuana arrest policies," said Gabriel Sayegh. New York State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "But, the devil remains in the details as to whether and how the NYPD implements this new directive. If followed, then the NYPD will at last comply with both the letter and spirit of the marijuana decriminalization law enacted in New York back in 1977."
"We appreciate Commissioner Kelly's internal clarification on marijuana possession offenses in New York City," said Kyung Ji Rhee, director of Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives . "Kelly responded to mounting public pressure to change procedures that were racist, costly, and targeted young people of color by arresting them on spurious charges. This is only a first step to ensuring that police are accountable to the community, and it is unfortunate that it took 15 years for the police to follow 3 decade old decriminalization law."
The arrest statistics say it all. Just 34,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession from 1981 to 1995 — but in the last 15 years 540,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession. More than 50,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2010 alone, far exceeding the total marijuana arrests from 1981-1995. The New York Police Department has provided no evidence that these massive numbers of arrests have done anything to reduce crime or to improve public safety and quality of life. There is also no evidence whatsoever that more people are smoking marijuana today than in the 1980s.
Most of these arrests are the result of illegal searches by the NYPD, as part of its controversial stop-and-frisk practices. Marijuana was decriminalized in New York State in 1977 — and that law is still on the books. Smoking marijuana in public or having marijuana visible in public, however, remains a crime. Most people arrested for marijuana possession are not smoking in public, but simply have a small amount in their pocket, purse or bag. Often when police stop and question a person, they say "empty your pockets" or "open your bag." Many people comply, even though they're not legally required to do so. If a person pulls marijuana from their pocket or bag, it is then "open to public view." The police then arrest the person.
"It shouldn't be news when the police decide to follow the law, but it is when we're talking about ending a practice that that led to illegal marijuana arrests becoming the number one arrest in New York City," said Alfredo Carrasquillo, a community organizer for VOCAL-NY who has been arrested in the past for possessing small amounts of marijuana. "Getting arrested for having a small bag of marijuana on you can mean more than just spending a night in jail. It can put at risk everything you need to get by, like getting a job, keeping your housing, caring for your kids, and going to college."
"We are pleased that the NYPD agrees that these marijuana arrests have not been proper and will begin to curtail them," said Harry Levine of the Marijuana Arrest Research Project. "The arrests are the fruit of the 600,000 recorded stop and frisks, of the large number of unrecorded stop and frisks, and of the many illegal or improper searches. None of these are being curtailed. The NYPD will likely make up the loss of these marijuana arrests by charging even more people with disorderly conduct, trespassing, resisting arrest and other crimes that do not require evidence. The police will likely be writing even more summonses, which are not minor in consequence. The NYPD requires major reform. This is a first step."