New York City was the first major city to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana possession. What could have been a proud history of progressive and rational cannabis laws has become a history of racism, leading to New York City becoming the world capital of marijuana arrests, with the most people going to jail over small amounts of cannabis.
The stop-and-frisk practices that often leads to marijuana arrests and are done disproportionally and routinely on blacks and Hispanics in the city. Police ask citizens during these encounters to empty their pockets, then arrest them, not for having the marijuana, but having it in plain view. Citizens became outraged about the practice, and started protesting the mayor’s house and the police department this summer.
In September, a memorandum from the police commissioner reminded NYC police officers to follow the letter of the law in marijuana cases and only make arrests if they have it in plain view. The highlight on the policy, coupled with the memo has led to arrest rates for small amounts of cannabis to drop significantly. But now that the data is in for 2011, we see that New York City actually increased their arrests for low-level marijuana possession last year.
The number of low-level marijuana criminals has now risen for the seventh straight year. The year-end arrest total for cannabis possession in the city was 50,684, up just a half a percentage point from 2010, but still more arrests than the arrest total from the entire 19 year period from 1978 to 1996. Even with the decline after Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly’s memo, there was an increase of 6 percent in marijuana arrests during the first eight months of the year, offsetting that decline.
Once again, marijuana arrests were the largest arrest category in New York City, costing the city about $75 million to pursue those arrested in the already-overburdened New York court system. New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg has faced criticism because the arrests of marijuana criminals under his watch have been a staggering 87 percent black or Hispanic, and only 10 percent of those arrested for marijuana crimes have been white, even though US government studies consistently find that white people’s marijuana use rates are higher than those of minorities. There is a bill in the Senate currently that would lower decriminalize a small step more, by lowering the charge for a small amount of marijuana that is in public view to a violation, punishable only by a fine.