Since 2002, about 500,000 people have been arrested for marijuana possession in New York State, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. The vast majority of those arrests — 440,000 — took place in New York City, where more people are arrested for marijuana possession than for any other offense. Of those arrests during the Bloomberg administration, 87% were of blacks or Latinos.
The Drug Policy Alliance, in conjunction with the Marijuana Arrest Research Project, also found that marijuana arrests have also cost the city $600 million in taxpayer money over the last decade.
Countless people arrested on a marijuana charge have had their lives permanently altered, with many struggling to find or keep employment with an arrest on their record. But public opinion is rapidly changing: Polls show a majority of the country — 52% — supports legalization, and 82% support medical marijuana statewide.
On Dec. 11, Sen. Liz Krueger stood on the steps of City Hall and unveiled a bill to legalize marijuana in New York State, flanked on either side by politicians and marijuana advocacy groups.
The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA) would regulate marijuana much like alcohol is regulated, allowing anyone over 21 to purchase up to two ounces of weed, anyone over 18 to possess it, and hosting a $50 excise tax per ounce.
The bill would also allow anyone to grow up to six marijuana plants at their home.
“Prohibition of marijuana is a policy that just hasn’t worked, no matter how you look at it, and it’s time to have an honest conversation about what we should do next,” Sen. Krueger said. “The illegal marijuana economy is alive and well, and our unjust laws are branding nonviolent New Yorkers, especially young adults, as criminals, creating a vicious cycle that ruins lives and needlessly wastes taxpayer dollars.”
Krueger described the current policies as a “civil rights disaster.”
“I think we will save a lot of money in our prison system, our police system, and our court system, and I think that that’s absolutely a major motivation to why we should treat marijuana the way we treat alcohol,” the Democrat told BuzzFeed.
As a teen, Alfredo Carrasquillo experienced stop-and-frisk firsthand — he was arrested for marijuana possession at the age of 14. Without any outlet or support, the arrest led Carrasquillo into a years-long downward spiral as he struggled through the criminal justice system.
Today, as the civil rights organizer for VOCAL-NY, Carrasquillo conducts trainings with low-income communities of color to train people on advocacy and educate them on their rights, to “help develop leaders and build power,” he told BuzzFeed.
Carrasquillo said he aims to “change the narrative around drugs and drug use in New York City, and educate people on our broken drug laws.” His goal, he said, is to reform the policies to make drug use a health and safety issue, as opposed to a criminalization issue.
“Ultimately we need to come up with alternatives and address the real issues that are causing these crimes and filling up our prisons,” he said.
Queens College sociology professor Harry Levine has been writing about marijuana arrests in New York since 2005. “When nobody even knew the scale and certainly not the racial disparity” of the problem, he said.
With nonprofit consultant Loren Sigel, Levine runs Marijuana-Arrests.com, a one-stop-shop filled with research and reporting on marijuana arrests with a focus on New York, though national data is also listed.
“We make visible what is often invisible,” Levine said, adding that when he first started out “there wasn’t a lot of attention being put to these low-level offense … and their enormous impact on the lives of the people who are affected by it.”
Aside from the collection of information, one of Levine’s pride points is the impact his research has made on the public lexicon.
“We did invent the phrase that New York City is the marijuana arrest capital of the world, and I’m happy to say that has taken off,” he said.
Last May, Brooklyn Assemblyman Karim Camara, Chair of the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus, introduced a marijuana arrest reform bill that was passed by the New York State Assembly.
Though it didn’t make it through the Senate, the bill would have made possessing small amounts of the drug in public view a violation punishable by fine, instead of arrest. Smoking in public would remain a misdemeanor.
“I am gravely disappointed that this budget failed to enact justice for the more than 44,000 individuals arrested last year based on a flawed law,” Camara said at the time. “Not only does allowing these arrests directly impact the lives of individuals and their communities, they are a gross misappropriation of city and state resources, and a waste of officer manpower that can be spent on more pressing law enforcement matters.”
In the Times, Jim Dwyer has written frankly and often about weed culture for a general audience, bringing to light the inconsistencies in policing, the racial disparities in arrests and the collateral damage they can inflict.
A recent story described a walk through down Eighth Avenue carrying a little bit of the green stuff in a backpack pushed the envelope for the Times, and Dwyer’s conclusion was jarring: that simply as a middle-aged white man, he was unlikely to register on the police officers’ radar of someone to frisk.
“Pot in the backpack is approximately the same as making an illegal turn in a car,” he points out, before bluntly referring to the “drip, drip of wasted time” every time someone is arrested and the case is dismissed because the officer had the day off, or was “missing paperwork.”
“How was it that all the black and Latino males were displaying or burning pot where it could be seen by the police?” he asks.
And Dwyer has been asking similar question for years, like in this story from 2011 about the hidden effects of arrests on struggling individuals, illustrated through a story of a young single mother who lost her job as a janitor. Early this year, he told the story of a young man who was frisked, arrested, and spent a night in jail for having “just one” joint.
Though he isn’t protesting or writing legislation, Dwyer’s tough questions and insistence on accountability has become a transformative voice in the media for marijuana prohibition.
In an attempt to reform discriminatory policing, especially in regards to frequent marijuana arrests, Williams and Lander spearheaded the Community Safety Act legislative package last year, which was supported by Mark-Viverito and others. Though Mayor Bloomberg vetoed two of the four bills, the council overrode his veto last August.
As Lander put it, “The most urgent and biggest thing in the near term is changing the fact that open-air possession of small amounts of marijuana is a misdemeanor in New York State,” he told BuzzFeed.
Lander called the misdemeanor law “embarrassing” and said it is having “deeply harmful consequences” for tens of thousands of New Yorkers each year.
The Council Members’ battle over marijuana policing isn’t a new one: back in 2011, Council member Mark-Viverito confronted NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly over criminal justice policies targeting people of color.
“As the City asks agencies providing vital services to New Yorkers to cut back, it is unacceptable that the NYPD is using $75 million in taxpayer dollars to enforce low-level marijuana offenses,” she emphasized.
As New York director of the Drug Policy Alliance, gabriel sayegh partners with community organizing groups, human service agencies, and researchers in an effort to reform outdated drug restrictions.
One of sayegh’s priorities is ending the racial bias in marijuana policing.
“A generation from now history will look back on this the way we look back on Jim Crow and say, ‘This is outrageous, how did they let this happen?’,” he told BuzzFeed.
While sayegh supports Sen. Krueger’s new marijuana legalization bill, he believes it could use an addendum to help erase the “historical harm” on the people who have been arrested.
“We have hundreds of thousands of our fellow New Yorkers who have a criminal record that they received because they were targeted by the police, largely because of the color of their skin,” he said, “and now they’re going to face lifelong consequences as a result, simply for possession of marijuana.”