In New York State, marijuana is a violation in your pocket, a misdemeanor out of your pocket, and it doesn't matter if you took it out because a cop told you to. PHOTO: Horsma, Wikimedia Commons
A devastating study by the Drug Policy Alliance found that the New York Police Department (NYPD) spent 1 million hours making marijuana-related arrests from 2002-2012. That's about 249 police hours a day spent making marijuana arrests for every day of Michael Bloomberg's time in office. People arrested by the NYPD spent 5 million hours in police custody (about 1245 hours every day). Though studies have found that white people use marijuana at higher rates than other ethnic groups, 85% of the arrests were to black and Latinos. There have been more marijuana arrests during Michael Bloomberg's tenure than those of Mayors Giuliani, Koch and Dinkins combined. These arrests cost New York taxpayers $75 million a year.
All this is happening in a state that decriminalized marijuana in quantities under one ounce in 1977, but provided an exception: police may make an arrest if the cannabis is in public view. This has caused a corrupt use of this policy: the infamous "stop and frisk" practice in which police make people, typically minority youths, empty their pockets. If they have pot in their pockets, it will be "in public view" when they empty their pockets, and they can then make the arrest.
Why do cops do this? One major reason is that they have quotas to meet: they need to make a certain number of arrests each month to stay in good standing with their supervisors. The fastest way to do this is to find people who can be harrassed with impunity and who probably don't have their own lawyers (so, poor, young minorities) and find ways to arrest them. Marijuana charges provide an easy vehicle for this.
This is senseless, and it should stop. Mayor Bloomberg probably won't be the one to do it, but Governor Cuomo might: he is in negotiations with the New York State legislature to fix the state's marijuana laws. Sensible drug reforms can be politically difficult, but New York's legislature is mostly liberal, and one of its drug opponents just got caught with pot on him (so at least one of those million hours was well spent). Sheldon Silver, the highest ranking member of the New York State Assembly, is pushing a bill that would relax marijuana laws only in New York City to specifically target stop-and-frisk practices.
Marijuana laws in this country are inching toward sanity. They'll get there eventually, but it will take some brave lawmakers to take the first steps to show that decriminalizing and legalizing cannabis is politically tenable.