Source: New York Times
By Jim Dwyer
Published: April 30, 2008
Among those washed into Manhattan Criminal Court by the Tuesday morning tides was a 25-year-old man who works in technology support for a large company.
He had been caught with $30 worth of marijuana after his car was stopped on Riverside Drive, an offense against Section 221.10 of the New York State penal code. His case involved surveillance by an unmarked car and two officers who then stayed late into the night processing their prisoner, fingerprinting him, writing a complaint and taking his mug shot.
The court proceeding lasted about 45 seconds. The charges would be permanently dismissed if he stayed out of trouble for a year, which did not appear to be a big challenge, since he had never been arrested before.
If the case seemed like much ado about hardly anything, the laws of the State of New York agree. The city’s Police Department and the mayor, however, have other ideas.
A study released Tuesday reported that between 1998 and 2007, the police arrested 374,900 people whose most serious crime was the lowest-level misdemeanor marijuana offense.
That is more than eight times the number of arrests on those same charges between 1988 and 1997, when 45,300 people were picked up for having a small amount of pot.
Here are other figures from the study, which was conducted by Harry G. Levine, a sociologist at Queens College, and Deborah Peterson Small, a lawyer and an advocate for changes in drug laws and enforcement practices.
Nearly everyone involved in this wave of marijuana arrests is male: 90 percent were men, although national studies show that men and women use pot in roughly equal rates.
And 83 percent of those charged in these cases were black or Latino, according to the study. Blacks accounted for 52 percent of the arrests, twice their share of the city’s population. Whites, who are about 35 percent of the population, were only 15 percent of those charged — even though federal surveys show that whites are more likely than blacks or Latinos to use pot.
Among the pretty large population of white people who have used pot and not been arrested for it is Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg. Asked during the 2001 campaign by New York magazine if he had ever smoked it, Mr. Bloomberg replied: “You bet I did. And I enjoyed it.” After he was elected and his remarks were used in advertisements by marijuana legalization advocates, Mr. Bloomberg said his administration would vigorously enforce the laws.
The statistics cited in the report, which were drawn from records kept by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, show that Mr. Bloomberg has kept his word. Although low-level marijuana arrests last year are down from their peak in 2000, they remain at very high levels historically.
In an official comment on the study, the Police Department was critical of the role played by the New York Civil Liberties Union in publicizing the report and noted that the research had been backed, in part, by the Marijuana Policy Project, which supports legalization.
Paul J. Browne, the department’s chief spokesman, said that all crime in the city had declined by about 60 percent in the three decades cited in the study. “Attention to marijuana and lower-level crime in general has helped drive crime down,” Mr. Browne said.
Mr. Levine said that the only research on the issue suggested that marijuana arrests played little role in driving down serious crime, and may in fact divert police resources.
What of the skewed numbers on arrest by race? Mr. Browne said that it was wrong to use national drug use surveys as evidence of racial bias in New York marijuana arrests. Mr. Levine said that one reason black and Latino men were disproportionally arrested on marijuana charges is that they are the vast majority of those stopped and frisked by police.
More than 30 years ago, legislators and the governor agreed, in broad terms, that the state would no longer jail people in possession of small amounts of marijuana.
The exceptions are that anyone caught “burning” marijuana or with it “open to public view” faces a misdemeanor charge.
The man who appeared in criminal court on Tuesday explained how his pot came to be openly displayed to police officers, even though he was in his car.
“I came out of the building, and this unmarked car, no light, no indication it was police, was right on me,” said the man, a Latino who asked that his name not be used because he was concerned about his job. “Right on my tail. An officer got out, he said, ‘I saw you walking from that building, I know you bought weed, give me the weed.’ He made it an option: ‘Give me the weed now and I will give you a summons, or we can search your vehicle and can take you in.’ ”
He opened the console and handed them his marijuana — making it “open to public view.”
“I was duped,” he said. But the deception was legal, and his pot wasn’t.
The officers escorted him in handcuffs to the unmarked car.