The NYPD’s Secret Crusade Against Marijuana Furthers a Racist Agenda


I have been intermittently reporting on the NYPD for half a century—sometimes admiringly, as when I spent several weeks with a homicide squad on the Lower East Side, learning how (in contrast to the CIA’s current methods) confessions that will hold up in court can be obtained by detectives without laying a hand on the suspect. And I’ve also written critically about the police, as well as various commissioners. But I have never seen such systematic dishonesty and contempt for the law as those documented in the 102-page report, “Marijuana Arrest Crusade: Racial Bias and Police Policy in New York City 1997-2007,” by Professor Harry Levine of Queens College and Deborah Peterson Small, executive director of Break the Chains.

In 2007 alone, there were 39,700 misdemeanor arrests for the possession of small amounts of marijuana. But such possession hasn’t been a crime in New York State since the Marijuana Reform Act of 1977. Under that law, which is still in effect, an offender can usually expect to get only a ticket, punishable by a fine of not more than $100.

But most of the 353,000 New Yorkers arrested for having these small amounts from 1997 to 2006 got much more than a ticket: They were handcuffed, photographed, and fingerprinted, held overnight, arraigned in criminal court, plagued with permanent criminal records, and charged with the crime of having marijuana “burning or open to public view.”

Since most of these people arrested had the pot hidden in a pocket, backpack, or purse, how did these stop-and-frisks turn into an arrest for “burning” marijuana” or having it “open to public view”?

As “Marijuana Arrest Crusade” demonstrates, this is done “by tricking and intimidating” suspects to take out the concealed marijuana, so that police officers can then claim they saw it “open to public view.” In fact, a longtime Legal Aid supervisor quoted in the study says that this process happens “all the time.” And such routine deception by the police to set someone up for arrest on a criminal-misdemeanor charge is perfectly legal.

There is much more detailed information in the report on the impact of these arrests, which—as described in last week’s column— greatly and disproportionately affect black and Latino youths. Part 7, “Head Start for Unemployment and Prison,” notes that these arrests “can limit the opportunity for young people to obtain employment and access to some schools, and for student aid.”

The report also notes something that I’ve pointed out in this space before: “Mayor Bloomberg and other prominent politicians [and the FBI] have urged collecting DNA from everyone arrested for anything whatsoever, including, therefore, marijuana possession.”

My main motivation as a reporter has never been to get “exclusives,” but to get vital information out by all possible means. I hope this revelation of the NYPD’s continuing disgrace will be read carefully by other reporters, legislators, and everyone else concerned with ending this racist crusade.

The findings come—as the tables and graphs demonstrate—from arrest data compiled by New York State and the FBI, along with “interviews with police, public defenders, legal aid attorneys, private attorneys, prosecutors, judges, and people arrested for possessing marijuana.”

I don’t get around much any more—especially to jazz clubs—because I spend so many evenings reading investigative reports, court decisions, and the like. And I’ve rarely seen such a lucid and fully documented report (including a 26-page “Notes and Sources” section) of such fundamental importance to the families of the young people caught up in these outrageously dishonorable practices, which have been approved by no less than three police commissioners, including the current one (and future mayoral candidate), Ray Kelly.

The report points out that the “39,700 misdemeanor marijuana possession arrests” in 2007 were “the fourth largest number of arrests in New York history.” And yet, “because the New York Police Department has released almost no information about these arrests, they have attracted little media attention. To this day, few New Yorkers know that for over a decade their city has been on a historically unprecedented marijuana arrest crusade.”

Now that the report has been released and featured at an April 30 New York City Bar discussion (“New York City’s Marijuana Arrest Policy Thirty Years After Decriminalization”), how much follow-up will there be on this important contribution by Harry Levine and Deborah Peterson Small to the naked truth regarding the transmogrification of this city’s police department? (I’ve known decent cops through the years who should have spoken out about this. It’s not too late.)

In the March 24 edition of The New York Sun—in the article “Turf War Between NYPD and FBI Centers on Terrorism,” by Dafna Linzer—Commissioner Kelly, ironically enough, is quoted as follows: “People have information, and they want to control information. Controlling information is power, and they don’t want to let it go—it is as fundamental as that.”

Also fundamental is Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis’s requirement for combating official lawlessness in a free society: “Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Will the sunlight of public exposure finally begin to disinfect the NYPD, which under this rancid policy—promulgated by several New York mayors and police commissioners—has been contemptuously violating the letter and the intent of the Marijuana Reform Act for 10 straight years?

“New York City’s marijuana possession arrests,” write Levine and Peterson Small, “were not of people arrested for more serious crimes who were then found to be possessing marijuana. In these arrests, marijuana possession was always the highest charge and often the only one.” (Emphasis added.)

They also note: “For the people arrested, mostly young Blacks and Latinos, the 24 hours in police custody and jail is a humiliating, degrading, alienating experience.”

Does anybody else in this city give a damn?

This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on May 6, 2008

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