By Phillip Smith
Thanks to aggressive policing strategies, New York City has for more than a decade been the world's leader in marijuana possession arrests, but now those numbers are starting to go down.
According to the State Division of Criminal Justice Services, some 10,078 people had been arrested on pot possession charges through April 23, about a 20% decrease over the same period last year. And last year saw a 22% overall decline in pot possession arrests over 2011.
That means that if the current trend continues, New York City will still see more than 30,000 small-time pot busts this year, but that's better than the 50,000 of a couple of years ago or the 40,000 last year.
And this in a state that decriminalized marijuana possession in 1977. The arrests occur because possession in public view is not decriminalized, and for years, the NYPD followed a practice of police directing people to produce they were carrying, then charged them with misdemeanor possession instead of citing them for the civil offense of pot possession.
NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly issued a memo in fall 2011directing the force to stop arresting people for that, and that undoubtedly accounts for some of the decline. Increased public scrutiny of the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy, which saw some 600,000 people a year---the vast majority of them young people of color---searched has probably also played a role in forcing the numbers down.
Earlier this year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that people arrested for small-time possession would no longer be sent to Central Booking, where they typically spend 24 hours before being released, but would instead be given a desk appearance ticket. That move reduced the pain somewhat, but not the arrest numbers.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) has proposed decriminalizing possession in public view. If that law had been in effect last year, 39,257 of the 40,661 pot possession arrests in 2012 would have gone up in smoke.