If Marijuana Is Decriminalized in NYC, Then Why Are Possession Arrests on the Rise?


Since the 1970s, a weed decriminalization shift has swept the nation, and New York was one of the first states to jump on board with the passing of the Marijuana Reform Act, in 1977. Still, New York’s marijuana-related arrest rate became the highest in the country — more than double the national average in 2013, with over 535 arrests per 100,000 people.

Two years ago, when Bill de Blasio announced a citywide policy change where officers would issue a summons instead of making arrests for someone in possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana, it drastically reduced the number of misdemeanor marijuana arrests, which dropped 56 percent between 2014 and 2015 alone, almost instantaneously.

But according to new data by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, they’ve gone back up just as quickly. The numbers are based on NYPD arrests from the first three months of 2016 and show an over 30 percent rise in arrests for the possession or sale of small amounts of marijuana — the department counted 5,311 busts between January and March, up from 3,973 arrests over the same period last year.

Edwin Raymond, an eight-year-veteran of the NYPD involved in a class-action lawsuit against the department for quota-based policing, says the problem is that cops are being used to “generate revenue”: The department is juicing weed and fare-beating arrests, now that they can’t rely on Stop-and-Frisk policing to beat department quotas.

A single misdemeanor marijuana arrest in New York City is between around $1,500 to $2,000 by one report’s findings. That covers police and court costs, and pre-arraignment jail costs.

“Say they want five arrests a month from every officer. They’ll keep pressuring you until you get that,” Raymond explains. “Marijuana becomes the easiest arrest because everybody smokes weed — across ethnicities and racial lines. It’s a minor infraction, it’s the low-hanging fruit.”

Robert Gangi, the director of the Police Reform Organizing Project (PROP), agrees, adding that racial bias is as big a problem as the quotas themselves. The last time Gangi visited Manhattan criminal court on a routine visit, there were eight marijuana arrests in the morning shift. “[They were] all people of color,” he told the Voice. “with one exception.”

A PROP study bears Gangi’s hunch out. In 2016, 86.5 percent of misdemeanor arrests have involved people of color, with fare-beating and marijuana possession and sale at the highest categories. “The hard truth is police have always fucked over people of color,” Gangi says. “And the so-called reforms they’ve enacted are virtually meaningless in terms of practices on the ground.”

The blame, says Allen St. Pierre, executive director of NORML, The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, is mostly on NYPD commissioner Bill Bratton, who is seemingly trapped in a Thirties-era “reefer madness” panic.

“Mr. Bratton sounds remarkably unenlightened regarding marijuana in general. When I compare him to my chief of police here in Washington, DC, Cathy Lanier, it’s like night and day. Think about what Bratton said just last week about marijuana use — it was just ridiculous.”

Last week, Bratton told local radio show “The Cats Roundtable” that marijuana is the cause of the “vast majority” of violence in New York City, going so far as suggesting weed is as dangerous as heroin.

But Chuck Rosenberg, chief of the DEA, says, “heroin is clearly more dangerous than marijuana,” while studies show marijuana as far safer compared to other drugs, including heroin and alcohol.

The NYPD did not respond to a request for comment.

For enlightenment, St. Pierre suggests Bratton get on a train.

“He has such prime examples that are just one or two Amtrak rides away.”

Philadelphia, for example, was confronted with the data that showed the vast majority of weed arrests were minorities. St. Pierre says the city decriminalized possession in response.

St. Pierre fears that Bratton’s comments last week will set back New York City even further.

“If you’re a patrol officer, if you’re a narcotics detective, if you’re a prosecutor in New York City and you pick up the Daily News or whatnot and read those absurd things Bratton was saying just a week ago about marijuana, that kind of gives you carte blanche to keep doing what you’re doing — shaking down people for marijuana.”