Trouble With Marijuana Arrests
Published: September 26, 2011
Commissioner Raymond Kelly of the New York Police Department came forthwith too little, too late when he issued a memo directing officers not to arrest people caught with small amounts of marijuana unless the drug is in plain public view. A 1977 law decriminalized minor possession, yet tens of thousands are arrested every year.
In 2010, more than 50,000 people were arrested for possession of marijuana; a vast majority of them were racial minorities and male. Civil rights lawyers say that many of them were stopped as part of the Police Department’s broad stop-and-frisk practice and were arrested after officers told them to empty their pockets, which brought the drugs into open view.
Commissioner Kelly’s memo now makes clear that displaying the drug must be an “activity undertaken of the subject’s own volition” and that individuals may not be charged with violating the law if the marijuana “was disclosed to public view at an officer’s direction.”
While the memo, reported by WNYC last week, is an important step, it does not by itself end the problem. The United States Justice Department and New York lawmakers should investigate the legality of practices that led to the arrests of hundreds of thousands of people since the mid-1990s.
Under New York law, possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana is a violation subject to a $100 fine for the first offense. Possession of any amount that is in public view, however, is a misdemeanor punishable by up to three months in jail and a $500 fine.
This statute was supported by district attorneys in the 1970s because they believed it would free the police to fight serious crimes. That changed in the mid-1990s when the city began emphasizing street stops as an important part of its policing approach. Since 1996, the city has taken more than 536,000 people into custody for the lowest-level marijuana charge, according to Harry Levine, a sociologist at Queens College who has tracked the data closely. From 1981 through 1995, that number was 33,700.
Police have characterized marijuana arrests as important for keeping criminals off the street. But, in testimony submitted to the Legislature this summer, Professor Levine estimated that a significant majority of those arrested in 2010 had never been convicted of any crime, based on an analysis of data reported to the state.
Young African-Americans and Hispanics, who are disproportionately singled-out in street stops, make up a high percentage of people arrested for marijuana possession — despite federal data showing that whites are more likely to consume marijuana. This policing practice has damaged young lives and deserves deeper scrutiny by federal and state monitors.
A version of this editorial appeared in print on September 27, 2011, on page A26 of the New York edition with the headline: Trouble With Marijuana Arrests: Questionable police practices on minor possession charges merit deeper scrutiny.