New mayor, same old story: New York still marijuana arrest capital

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio criticized the city's track record of aggressive and frequently unbalanced policing of marijuana offenses during his mayoral campaign. It appears, however, that not much has changed under his watch.

Mark Lennihan/AP
New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton, (l.), and Mayor Bill de Blasio talk during memorial observances at the site of the World Trade Center in New York, Sept. 11. Under Mayor de Blasio and Commissioner Bratton's watch, the number of marijuana possession arrests in New York City have increased, according to a study from the Drug Policy Alliance released

New York City has long been called the “marijuana arrest capital of the world.” Under the administration of Mayor Bill de Blasio, the nation’s largest city has maintained that reputation, continuing its aggressive campaign against those found possessing even the most trace amounts of the drug.

In fact, Mayor de Blasio and New York City Police Commissioner William Bratton have even outdone the previous administration, surpassing the marijuana possession arrest totals nearly every month this year compared with last, according to a study by the Drug Policy Alliance released Monday. Over the past six months, there have been more than 15,000 low-level arrests of those possessing less than a sandwich-size bag, or 25 grams, of pot – about 500 more than last year.  

And as advocates and reformers have long pointed out, the overwhelming majority of those arrested – some 86 percent – continue to be black and Latino young men. Even so, their white counterparts, who make up only 10 percent of marijuana arrests in the city’s five boroughs, consistently consume the drug at higher rates, according to the U.S. government’s National Survey on Drug Use and Health.

As a candidate, de Blasio used this dramatic disparity to underscore his “tale of two cities” campaign slogan, and called the arrests “unjust and wrong.” “Low‐level marijuana possession arrests have disastrous consequences for individuals and their families,” as he put it in his campaign platform last year. Such arrests, he said, limit their “ability to qualify for student financial aid and undermine one’s ability to find stable housing and good jobs.”

De Blasio's New York has hardly been a progressive beacon for the issue during his first 10 months in office, critics say. Much of the nation has begun to relax its approach to the plant, even though the federal government still classifies it as a Schedule 1 drug, on par with heroin and LSD.

In July, New York became the 23rd state in the nation to legalize medical marijuana, and two states, Colorado and Washington, have legalized the drug for recreational use. The federal government, too, has recommended new more lenient sentencing guidelines for those caught with marijuana. The US Department of Justice has begun a clemency review for some convicted during a harsher era.

In the 1970s, New York State decriminalized private possession of 25 grams or less of the drug – that is, unless it is displayed “in open view,” which makes such possession a misdemeanor felony and a permanent criminal record.

This "open view" aspect of the state's marijuana possessional law gives New York police officers an effective street tactic under Commissioner Bratton's theory of urban policing. During the commissioner's first tenure in New York 20 years ago, Bratton introduced a "broken windows" strategy, which holds that enforcing low level crimes and removing signs of disorder creates a psychological deterrent to more serious crime.

During a stop, an officer can order an individual to empty his or her pockets. Under Bratton's interpretation of the state law, those contents fall under "open view." If that person has even a half-smoked joint, say, he or she can be arrested and charged for a crime that could land them in jail, or more likely get them fired or lose their financial aid.

“With the aim of maintaining order in poor, high-crime neighborhoods, police saddle thousands of young men with criminal records for an offense that the state has largely decriminalized and that white people regularly commit with impunity,” writes Michael Greenberg in The New York Review of Books.  

The mayor’s office points out that when the first two months of 2014 are factored in, low-level pot arrests are actually slightly down for the year. However these were particularly cold months, critics respond, and nearly every month since there has been an increase in such arrests.

But de Blasio brought Bratton back to bolster his credibility among the NYPD’s rank and file; De Blasio was a relentless critic of the department as a candidate last year. He has maintained his support for Bratton’s “broken windows” approach to low level crime, even as his minority base continues to clamor for change.

“If you’re violating the law, I can understand why any New Yorker might say, well that might not be such a big offense or that might not be something that troubles any of us individually,” de Blasio said in July, defending his Commissioner. “But breaking the law is breaking the law."

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