Harry Levine of “We Are Always Encouraged When the Police Decide to Obey the Law”


Much of what we know about the racial discrepancy between marijuana use and marijuana arrests in New York comes largely from the research of one man: Queen College sociology professor Harry Levine. Levine is the go to guy for information on marijuana and the criminal justice system, a kind of Nate Silver of drug statistics who can tell you just about anything you want to know concerning the war on drugs in our town.

We relied heavily upon Levine’s research for this week’s Voice feature story “White Mayor’s Burden,” which took Michael Bloomberg to task for wanting to help young men of color while disproportionately locking them up for low level marijuana use. After the stunning news that Ray Kelly has ordered the NYPD to actually follow the law and stop arresting people for small amounts of pot, we circled back to Levine to get his thoughts.

Here’s our (edited) conversation.

How did you first hear about Kelly’s order?

I got an email from Robin Steinberg of the Bronx Defenders saying, “WOW!!!” And it had the Ailsa Chang story. I then received it from Tony Newman at the Drug Policy Alliance and others.

What was your initial reaction?

I wrote both a short statement and a long statement. The short statement:

“We are always encouraged when the police decide to obey the law. New York City’s routine policing practices, especially for drug possession, require major reform. This is only the first step.”

And the long statement:

“We are pleased that the NYPD agrees that these marijuana arrests have not been proper and will begin to curtail them. The arrests are the fruit of the 600,000 recorded stop and frisks, of the large number of unrecorded stop and frisks, and of the many illegal and improper searches. None of these racially-skewed practices are being curtailed. The NYPD will likely try to make up the loss of these marijuana arrests by charging even more people with disorderly conduct, trespassing, resisting arrest and other crimes that do not require evidence. The police will likely be writing even more mandatory court appearance summonses for marijuana possession and other offenses. These arrests and summonses are not minor in consequence and they disproportionately target young blacks and Latinos. New York City’s routine policing practices, especially for drug possession, require major reform. This is a first step. “

Still, I am delighted that the NYPD finally agrees with us, and I actually think they should thank us! They should thank you and everyone else who has revealed their improper and often illegal arrest practices. And we’ve put up news about it at our new web site, We’ll be staying on top of what happens.

The White Mayor’s Burden
Ray Kelly Finally Does the Right Thing with Weed Arrests
Crime Higher in Neighborhoods Without Marijuana Dispensaries, RAND Corporation Finds
Michael Bloomberg’s Young Men’s Initiative: the Full Report
Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance Responds to the Big NYPD Marijuana News