More than 350,000 people have been arrested for marijuana possession in New York City under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, an admitted pot-smoker.
Marijuana possession offenses were the number one reason for arrests in New York City in 2010, according to recently released figures from the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services. Cannabis offenses comprised 15 percent of all arrests in NYC last year. The majority of those arrested for pot were African-American and Latino youth.
More people were arrested last year in New York City on marijuana charges than during the entire 19-year period from 1978 to 1996, according to the figures.
The New York City Police Department arrested 50,383 people for low-level marijuana offenses last year. On an average day in New York City, nearly 140 people are arrested for pot possession, making the Big Apple the "Marijuana Arrest Capital of the World," according to the Drug Policy Alliance.
The dramatic rise in marijuana arrests is not the result of increase pot use, which peaked nationally around 1980 according to data collected by the U.S. government. Over the past 20 years, NYPD has quietly made arrests for marijuana their top enforcement priority, without public acknowledgement or debate, according to DPA.
This is the sixth year in a row with an increase in marijuana possession arrests. In 2005, there were 29,752 pot arrests; 2010's total of 50,383 represents a 69 percent increase.
Since Mayor Michael Bloomberg came into office in 2002, 350,000 people have been arrested for low-level cannabis offenses in New York City. This is despite the fact that Bloomberg, when asked if he'd ever tried marijuana in his youth, responded, "You bet I did. And I enjoyed it."
Photo: Queens College
Dr. Harry Levine, Queens College: "New York has made more marijuana arrests under Bloomberg than any mayor in New York history"
"New York has made more marijuana arrests under Bloomberg than any mayor in New York history," said Dr. Harry Levine, a sociology professor at Queens College and the nation's leading expert on marijuana arrests. "Bloomberg's police have arrested more people for marijuana than Mayors Koch, Dinkins, and Giuliani combined.
"These arrests cost tens of millions of dollars every year, and introduce tens of thousands of young people into our broken criminal justice system," Dr. Levine said.
Most people arrested for marijuana possession offenses are handcuffed, placed in a police car, taken to a police station, fingerprinted and photographed, held in jail for 24 hours or more and then arraigned before a judge, according to DPA.
Almost 70 percent of those arrested are younger than 30 years old. Eighty-six percent of those arrested are black or Latino, even though research consistently shows young whites use marijuana at higher rates.
"The NYPD and Mayor Bloomberg are waging a war against young blacks and Latinos in New York," said Kyung Ji Rhee, director of the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reforms and Alternatives. "These 50,000 arrests for small amounts of marijuana can have devastating consequences for New Yorkers and their families, including permanent criminal records, loss of financial aid, possible loss of child custody, loss of public housing and a host of other collateral damage.
"It's not a coincidence that neighborhoods with high marijuana arrests are the same neighborhoods with high stop-and-frisks and high juvenile arrests," Rhee said.
Many New Yorkers have no idea that marijuana possession was decriminalized in New York more than 30 years ago, when a Republican State Senator and a Democratic State Assemblyman sponsored the Marijuana Reform Act of 1977. The Legislature found that "arrests, criminal prosecutions and criminal penalties are inappropriate for people who possess small quantities of marihuana for personal use."
Possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana was decriminalized -- that is, it was made a violation, with the first offense carrying a maximum penalty of a $100 fine, with no arrest and no jail. Smoking marijuana "in public view" was made a criminal offense, a misdemeanor.
Most people arrested for marijuana possession were not smoking in public; most simply had a small amount of cannabis in their pocket, purse or bag. Having a small amount of marijuana in one's pocket or bag is a legal violation, not a criminal offense.
But quite often, when police stop and question a person, they say "Empty your pockets" or "Open your bag," or just "Hand over your pot and I'll give you a ticket." If a person then pulls marijuana from their pocket or bag, it makes the marijuana "open to public view," technically a crime, and they are arrested.
In 2009, the NYPD stopped and questioned more than 575,000 people, 84 percent of them people of color. More than 325,000 of those stops resulted in frisks. Fewer than 12 percent of those encounters resulted in a summons or arrest.
This month, the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reforms and Alternatives and the Drug Policy Alliance launched a training program called "Know Your Rights, Build Your Future." The training sessions are being held in every borough in New York City every month to educate New Yorkers about their rights and the law. They are part of a citywide campaign to end the marijuana arrest crusade and promote more effective policies.
"The NYPD's marijuana enforcement practices are racially biased, unjust, and costly, said Gabriel Sayegh, New York State Director for DPA. "The mayor can end these arrests immediately by simply ordering Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and the NYPD to follow the legislative intent of the 1977 decriminalization law.
"What the Legislature found in 1977 holds true today," Sayegh said. "Arrests for small amounts of marijuana are inappropriate and wasteful."