City Has Highest Number of Marijuana Arrests in More Than a Decade

Wednesday, February 01, 2012

Last year, New York City police officers made the greatest number of marijuana arrests in more than a decade, according to new state records.

The NYPD arrested about 50,700 people for low-level marijuana possession in 2011, a figure that comes just months after the department ordered officers not make arrests for marijuana possession if the marijuana was never in public view.  

Defense lawyers and law enforcement experts say they don't think the order has done much to change what they believe to be unlawful police behavior on the streets.

A Distinction of the Bloomberg Administration

There had been a 13 percent drop in marijuana arrests after Police Commissioner Ray Kelly issued the internal order related to marijuana arrests last September. But it’s too early to tell if Kelly’s order has had an impact, observers say, because there have been historical dips and surges in the number of arrests.

Harry Levine, a professor at Queens College, said marijuana arrests have nearly doubled since 2005. The number of arrests made in the last half of Mayor Michael Bloomberg's tenure has exceeded the total number of marijuana arrests made under Mayors Giuliani, Dinkins and Koch combined.

"Twenty-four years of marijuana arrests under three different mayors and a number of different police chiefs are still lower than just five years of what Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly have accomplished," Levine said.

Allegations of Improper Practices During Stop-and-Frisks

The marijuana arrest data doesn't indicate how many arrests occurred during stop-and-frisks. But critics of the police say stop-and-frisks are driving up marijuana arrest rates under Bloomberg.  
For years, there have been allegations that officers force people to display their marijuana in public view before arresting them  -- by either ordering people to empty their pockets or reaching into pockets and pulling marijuana out themselves. Kelly's order plainly stated that an officer may not arrest someone for a misdemeanor in those cases.  

"I would say that about half of the marijuana arrest cases that I see are actually mischarged misdemeanors,” said Legal Aid lawyer Renate Lunn, “and, in fact, even the court papers say that the marijuana was recovered from some place that wasn't in public view, such as a sock or a backpack or the glove compartment of a car.”

Lawyers elsewhere in the city are seeing similar percentages of what they think are improper arrests. Scott Levy of the Bronx Defenders is heading up the Marijuana Arrest Project, which is systematically collecting data on the quality of marijuana arrests they're seeing throughout the Bronx.  

"I would say as much as 40 percent of these cases stem from illegal searches, illegal stops of our clients, and the mischarging of our clients where clients are charged with the misdemeanor of possessing marijuana in public view where they only actually possessed it in their pocket," he said.

When asked on Wednesday if the new state data suggests his order isn't making much difference in what officers were still doing on patrol, Kelly said since he can't see what every officer is encountering on the street, he can't quantify how many officers are ignoring his order.

"The numbers are what they are," said Kelly.

The police argue getting tough on even low-level offenses has dramatically reduced violent crime in the city. But so far, no academic study has conclusively proven marijuana arrests cause any decrease in crime.  Levine, the professor, has studied the criminal records of people arrested for marijuana possession in New York City and says the data shows we're not talking about people with violent records.

"A third of them have never been arrested before for anything,” he said. “Another third have never been convicted of anything whatsoever and you get something like about another 15 or so percent -- 20 percent -- who have never been convicted of anything but a misdemeanor.”

And more than half of them are under 25. Even though national studies show young whites smoke pot more, 87 percent of those arrested for marijuana in New York City are either black or Latino -- most of them living in the neighborhoods where the most stop-and-frisks occur.


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Comments [13]

Damian C.

Ailsa, your coverage of this subject has been informative and important. Please continue to expose these unjust and wasteful practices. An 18 year old was killed by police in the bronx over a small amount of marijuana. Please get this on the air. Get this publicized. Please be the voice for those who don't have one.

Feb. 09 2012 08:38 AM
ConservativeChristian from Bible Belt

Jesus said to do unto others as we would have them to do unto us. None of us would want our child or grandchild thrown in jail with the sexual predators over marijuana. None of us would want to see an older family member’s home confiscated and sold by the police for growing a couple of marijuana plants for their aches and pains.
If the people who want to use marijuana could grow a few plants in their own back yards, it would be about as valuable as home-grown tomatoes; it would put the drug gangs out of business and get them out of our neighborhoods.

Feb. 04 2012 10:46 PM
cwebba1 from Astoria

Dear NYPD,
Please arrest more potheads. Rhetoric that dope-smoking is a "victimless crime" is a canard. Marijuana is a dangerous addictive drug. Consuming marijuana turns people into filthy liars and thieves who cheat without regard to others and rationalize their criminal behavior. Please start with my roommate.

Feb. 02 2012 05:53 PM

The problem is it's NOT a waste of tax payer dollars. More likely the city is trying to fill budget gaps with increased fines on marijuana smokers. The police have become like a team of fund raisers rolling through the city and when they see a "prospect" they ask him for a donation he can't refuse via a ticket. Just another way to balance the budget on the backs of the poor. On the other hand the easy way to avoid the "weed tax" is don't smoke outside, simple enough, right?

Feb. 02 2012 04:02 PM
Leila from Westchester, NY

This issue is about much more than marijuana. It's about your 4th Amendment rights and the racist way those protections about unlawful search and seizure are applied (or not applied). @John from Office, yes, people would all be better off not smoking pot, as smoking anything will give you cancer. But continuing to spread the fallacy that marijuana is a "gateway" drug and causes people to "waste their lives" adds little to the conversation about potentially unlawful search and seizure and is irresponsible. Studies that examine this point are controversial, if not complete junk science - allowing statistical correlation to imply causation. Garbage! Although you can dismiss it as anecdotal, I know more well educated, post-grad degree holding executives, lawyers, etc. who smoke pot than I can count. People do not waste their lives from smoking pot. They waste their lives because they're lame people...or stupid enough to get caught...or their skin happens to be the wrong color on the street.

If anyone wants to read a well documented history of the drug war, read Smoke & Mirrors, by Dan Baum. Understand how the Nixon admin created the cultural war against peaceful war protesters/artists and drugs, while the real addicts were abandoned war veterans who, returning to the US, were denied mental health care. This is when federal policy changed - drug abuse had previously been in the realm of health care, but then the neediest people were turned into "criminals" instead.


Feb. 02 2012 01:44 PM

@John from Office:

If you don't want to smoke, don't. it's simple as that. Don't dictate to others what they can do with their own bodies. It doesn't affect you so why should you care? Our police department is wasting our tax dollars going after non violent "crimes" (and in reality, possession of anything less than an ounce is not even a crime. it's a civil citation).

Feb. 02 2012 01:28 PM
Station44025 from Park Slope

From the map it is obvious that whiter, wealthier people are generally allowed to smoke pot, while poorer people of color are regularly persecuted and prosecuted for it. If control of marijuana were the goal, enforcement would be even, so we have to ask what is the purpose of this persecution of poor, black and brown people? Is it to provide prisoners for the prison industrial complex, to create jobs for police officers, to prevent class mobility among the lower classes, simple racism, or some other reason? Clearly, Marijuana is illegal not because there is anything wrong with it per se, but because it is a tool that society can use to control a certain segment of the population.

Feb. 02 2012 12:32 PM
Chris George from NYC

That's good news.
Keep up the great work NYPD!

Feb. 02 2012 10:00 AM
Richard R. Binkele from Tarrytown, NY

If you gave a 12-year-old $50 and told him to come back in an hour with either a bottle of Jack Daniels or a bag of marijuana, he'd return with the pot because the liquor store would loose its license selling to a minor but the drug dealer wouldn't. It's time we legalize and license marijuana and stop this insane war on drugs.

Feb. 02 2012 09:42 AM
John from Office

How about a simple solution. STOP SMOKING POT. It is a waste of time and only serves to further weight down hispanics and blacks. The media and "artist" make it cool to smoke and leave behind them wasted lives and dropouts. Furthering the underclass.

Feb. 02 2012 08:08 AM
Matthew Swaye from NYC

It's the New Jim Crow.

*Raw Footage* Elders Arrested By NYPD in Harlem Jan. 5, 2012

Imagine two white grandmothers taken this way. You can't, it’s inconceivable, one can’t picture it. (No where in the city can one film two white grandmothers being taken away.) Look, S&F is a crime against humanity. Do Black and Brown children of this city deserve no more than criminalization and ridicule? We all have cameras and there’s no logical reason we can’t cop-watch our way out of this cop problem. Cameras on.

Feb. 01 2012 11:34 PM
mtazman from 01749

America is a police state. When the police cheat, it devalues the system and leads to more corruption and killings. Sad to see this cultural war on the American people by their own US Government. Politicians should be hung.

Feb. 01 2012 09:19 PM

As long as the federal government pays grant money to police departments for marijuana possession arrests this will continue to happen.

Police ignore violent crimes to go for the gold and boost their bounty money.

Feb. 01 2012 06:57 PM

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