A Time for Mercy


Rabbi Yitzchak Fried, the longtime Lower East Side activist who was arrested last year for selling marijuana he said was for medical purposes, was given five years’ probation and a $5000 fine at a hearing Monday in Brooklyn State Supreme Court. Nearly two dozen supporters of Rabbi Fried sat in the courtroom under a broken clock as he spoke, minutes before Judge Plummer E. Lott delivered the sentence.

“I am remorseful,” said Fried, who pleaded guilty earlier this year and was facing up to three years in prison. “I feel I won’t do it again, though I will fight for the principles within the law that I believe in. My family has been very devastated by this situation.”

Judge Lott received more than 20 letters from Fried’s friends, family members, and colleagues describing his selflessness, and from sick people Fried has helped in the past. Describing himself as “firm but fair,” the judge said the nonviolent crime has already tarnished the rabbi’s reputation and made his family suffer, and that sending Fried to jail would only throw his wife and seven children onto public assistance.

Fried was arrested in February 2000 in Borough Park, Brooklyn, after selling pot totaling about seven ounces to a police informant on five occasions. Fried, who became involved with medical marijuana after counseling AIDS patients in harm-reduction programs in the early 1990s, said the man told him he had AIDS and was addicted to heroin. Fried believes marijuana is an exit drug that helps people get off junk.

While stressing the gravity of the case, Lott said, “In my review of the material, the picture that emerges is that you are inherently decent, compassionate, respectable, and loved by those who you are in contact with.”

In the hallway, surrounded by well-wishers patting him on the back, Fried said he was thankful for the turnout. “The law needs to be clarified, but it’s not for me to do it, not for politicians to change the law,” he said. “It’s having people come forth, having the average citizen speak the truth.”

Or the numbers could speak for themselves. Since Giuliani took office, the city has opened a zealous and costly front on marijuana, medical and recreational. In the first half of 2000 alone, police made 36,938 arrests on charges involving marijuana. Startlingly, all but 671 of those were for misdemeanors, selling less than an ounce or possessing anything from a joint to eight ounces. This is a 1375 percent increase over 1993, and has resulted in a spike in lockups for misdemeanor possession charges, from 139 that year to 4867 in 1999.

The boom in street-corner arrests stands in stark contrast to the scene in suburbs like Nassau County, where smokers sit safely in private homes or in cars in school parking lots. In 1997, reports the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, only 1177 arrests were made in Nassau for pot, 1302 in Westchester.

The city is a different world. Police are arresting people at a frantic rate for nothing but low-level marijuana charges. A recent analysis by the city’s Independent Budget Office shows that a decade ago a misdemeanor marijuana arrest was four times more likely to be accompanied by a serious charge than it is today.

And in the name of change, under the bill Governor George Pataki has proposed to reform the Rockefeller drug laws, things could get even worse. While Pataki’s plan lowers the most severe mandatory minimums for top-level offenders, it quietly ratchets up the danger for those caught with marijuana. Under the proposal, which would hit recreational and medical smokers alike, holding a joint in a park could become a felony.

Here’s how it would work. Under current law, misdemeanor marijuana charges land you anywhere from a $100 to $1000 fine and 15 days to a year in jail. Those convicted rarely get anything near that much, sentenced to time served and fined. But under Pataki’s proposal, those caught with pot a fourth time in five years are automatically charged with a felony, which could bring three and a half years in jail. For those selling less than an ounce, automatic felonies kick in after the third misdemeanor, and on the fourth, the mandatory time could jump to seven years.

The plan to reform the drug laws in the state assembly does not mention marijuana, which lawmakers placed in a category separate from other drugs in 1977, decriminalizing it for those who keep small amounts for personal use. Drug-law reformers are lobbying legislators to reject Pataki’s marijuana riders.

“Proposals of drug-law reform are supposed to be talking about how to properly reduce the number of prison slots,” says Anita Marton, a senior attorney at the Legal Action Center, “but if you look at his marijuana proposals, they would lead to an increase in incarceration. The proposal will ultimately send more people to prison.”

Since the Voice covered Fried’s case in “Sacrificial Lamb,” March 6, some readers have asked how to help. Donations can be made to the Ezra L. Legal Fund, 1571 45th Street, Brooklyn, 11219.