Pubdate: Fri, 05 Oct 2007
Source: AlterNet (US Web)
Copyright: 2007 Independent Media Institute
Author: Ezekiel Edwards
Note: This post, written by Ezkiel Edwards, originally appeared on DMI Blog


With the NYPD facing difficult challenges such as combating terrorism
and stopping the flow of illegal handguns into the city, what are the
police arresting people for at a rate ten times greater than before
1997? Marijuana.

But they aren't arresting everyone who possesses marijuana; only poor
people of color. When confronted with statistics demonstrating the
grossly disproportionate arrest rates of African Americans, often
conservatives are quick to respond that African Americans commit more

But then how would they explain the epidemic of marijuana arrests in
New York City over the past ten years, a plague of over-policing that
has swept up poor people of color, sending Blacks and Hispanics to
jail for misdemeanor marijuana offenses at rates far greater than
those of whites, even though, according to the U.S. government, whites
use more marijuana per capita than Blacks and Hispanics? If you don't
think such arrests ever happen, you might be surprised to learn that
in the last ten years, New York City has arrested more people for
marijuana than any city, not just in New York State, not just in the
Northeast, not just in America, but in the entire world.

How would conservatives respond to Professor Harry Levine's testimony
in May 2007 before the New York State Assembly Committees on Codes and
on Corrections (regarding proposed legislation to expand the DNA
databank by requiring anyone convicted of a misdemeanor marijuana
offense to give a DNA sample)? For two years. Professor Levine has
researched marijuana arrests and convictions in New York City. Here is
some of what he found:

Between 1997 and 2006, 360,000 people were arrested and jailed for
marijuana offenses in NYC , ten times more than had been arrested the
decade previous. That means 100 people a day in NYC are handcuffed and
thrown in jail, where they sit, for at least 24 hours, sometimes 36,
sometimes 48, waiting to appear before a judge to answer for their

To figure out who is getting arrested most frequently for marijuana
offenses, you might just figure out who possesses and uses marijuana
most often, right? Among high school students and young adults, for
instance, a higher percentage of white people use marijuana than
Blacks and Hispanics.

Since the majority of those arrested in NYC are between the ages of 16
and 26, it follows that whites must be bearing the brunt of NYPD's
marijuana arrest mania, right? Wrong.

In fact, 85% are Black and Latino (55% and 30%, respectively), 15% are

Put another way, for every 100,000 whites, 124 were arrested. For
every 100,000 Hispanics, 430 were arrested. For every 100,000 Blacks,
975 were arrested. So blacks were arrested at eight times the rate of

Even without the statistics, does that sound representative of the
percentage of marijuana users in this city if categorized by race?
Does anyone think that blacks possess marijuana at eight times the
rates of whites? If so, then you haven't been into white homes across
New York City, from the two-bedroom apartments on the Upper West Side
to West Village lofts to parties in Chelsea to Williamsburg walk-ups
to Park Slope brownstones to residences in Astoria and Jackson Heights.

And yet, the NYPD arrest blacks at a rate more than double the
percentage of their overall population in every borough other than the

Are people arrested moving pounds of marijuana across state lines?
Hardly. Most of those arrested were not event smoking in public;
rather, they were in possession of a few grams or a small plastic bag
the size of a quarter, or simply standing near someone in possession.

As a public defender, it was inevitable that in any given 8-hour
arraignment shift, I would encounter a pile of marijuana cases. All
misdemeanors, all for possessing a bag, or maybe two bags, or for
smoking a marijuana cigarette, and all those arrested Black and Latino.

Why is it that poor Blacks and Latinos have to miss work, lose jobs,
miss school, be away from their families, pay fines, do community
service, sometimes get criminal records, spend a day or night (or
both) in jail, for possessing marijuana, yet middle- and upper-class
whites throughout the city smoke marijuana routinely, or carry it on
the street, or have it home delivered, and never face the same
consequences? Most whites are not even concerned with such
consequences, since they never face them. If the police patrolled
Columbia University and NYU the way they patrolled the South Bronx
(i.e., stopping people on a whim, unconstitutionally searching them,
sending undercover officers to perform marijuana transactions, etc.),
they would fill the Manhattan jails so quickly that the system would
screech to a halt. But that is not going to happen. White college
students can continue behaving exactly as their Black and Latino
counterparts in other neighborhoods, breaking the same laws, and while
they sit back laughing at silly movies while eating Doritos,
throughout the city poor people of color sit in roach-infested jails
for hours waiting for a lawyer to get them out of jail, even if it
means paying a hefty fine, or cleaning the subway, or receiving a
lifelong criminal record.

There is only one reason why the police under-enforce marijuana laws at
Columbia University, where marijuana possession and use is abundant,
such that the marijuana arrest rate is one of the lowest in the city,
and over-enforce the same laws in adjacent communities like West Harlem:
the former is predominantly white and well-off, the latter is
overwhelmingly minority and poor. Talk about two Americas.

Why does NYC have such an outlandish and discriminatory policy
regarding marijuana arrests? Professor Levine notes that with so
little media coverage on the issue, and silence from the NYPD and the
Mayor's Office, it is difficult to pinpoint the reason. But here are a
few of Professor Levine's educated guesses:

1) Marijuana arrests are generally easy, clean, and

2) Police officers are underpaid, and marijuana arrests are a way to
build overtime hours, hence increase their pay (not to mention
increase their chances for promotion). This also helps supervisors
build overtime hours.

3) Marijuana arrests are an easy way for the NYPD to gather
information on young people of color in poor neighborhoods, as each
arrest involves the acquisition of pedigree information, fingerprints,
photographs, etc.

Regardless of the twisted purposes behind such policies, marijuana
arrests are so common in certain communities that they have simply
become part of everyday life, and almost everyone involved, from the
police to the residents to the judges to the lawyers, are so
accustomed to them that they hardly take notice. Where is the outrage?
How can I, at one moment, be staring at a jail cell full of young
Black and Latino men arrested for marijuana possession, and in the
next moment, after a short subway ride, be at a predominantly white
dinner party where marijuana (among many other things) is being
delivered, possessed, and used with impunity?

My solution is not to increase arrests of all marijuana possessors and
users (although arrests en masse of white college students would be
the quickest way to grab the attention of wealthy and influential
white people and spell the policy's quick demise). Rather, the police
and the Mayor should shift their money, resources, and tactical
priorities to more serious matters, such as violent crime, domestic
violence, gun selling, and terrorism, for example, and leave poor
people of color alone on the marijuana issue.

As it is today, one has to wonder, what on earth are the police and
the Mayor smoking?
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake