Marijuana legalization advocates have some hard numbers on their side, thanks to a report from the office of the City Comptroller.
Comptroller John Liu announced a proposal today that would make marijuana legal in New York City: New Yorkers age 21 and older would be permitted to possess up to one ounce of marijuana.
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Liu delivered some shocking statistics: in the Bronx, approximately one percent of the entire adult population was arrested for low-level marijuana possession in 2012.
"Most of those arrested are under 25 years old," Liu said. "Just getting started, And many will suffer for the rest of their lives."
Both Liu and Gabriel Sayegh with the Drug Policy Alliance emphasized the racial disparity in marijuana arrests, as well:The proportion of white New Yorkers and black and Hispanic New Yorkers who use marijuana are roughly the same, but black and Hispanic New Yorkers make up 86 percent of arrests while white New Yorkers only account for 11 percent.
Shapriece Townsend, a young man working with VOCAL-NY, recounted an incident when he was arrested for low level marijuana possession. He said he had just left his grandmother's house when an unmarked police car sped up to him and pinned his leg against a fence. Plainclothes officers jumped out, patted him down and illegally searched his pockets, and then arrested him for the small amount of marijuana he was carrying.
Townsend said he spent three days in jail, missed work and was suspended from school.
"Were President Obama a law school student in New York City today, using marijuana as he did at that time, it would be very likely that he would be stopped, questioned, illegally searched and potentially arrested for marijuana," Sayegh speculated. "And had that happened, he would likely not be the president that we have today."
Liu's proposal likens the regulation of marijuana with that of alcohol, and the current situation to the era of Prohibition.
"Look how badly the prohibition of alcohol worked," Liu said. "It drove alcohol and the people who wanted to consume it into the hands of gangsters operating in an underground environment."
A major draw in Liu's proposal is his idea to use some of the revenue from the legalization to reduce tuition to city universities by as much as 50 percent.
Liu's proposal is supported by Joanne Naughton, a petite white-haired former NYPD lieutenant who used to work undercover in narcotics.
"I went out on the streets and I bought heroin and cocaine and pills and everything else," Naughton said. "Decades ago—and we're still doing it. What we did then and what we're doing now doesn't work. If it worked, we wouldn't be here, we wouldn't have a problem."
Naughton shrugged off the notion that some people won't want to buy marijuana legally, because they won't want to be perceived as a marijuana user, particularly those with employers who may frown on marijuana use.
"They'll have to make changes," Naughton insisted. "You can't penalize people for doing something that's lawful unless you can show that it's affecting their work."
Naughton allowed that "there will be a period of time where kinks will have to be worked out," but said legalizing the substance would serve to reduce and eventually eliminate the stigma that leads to furtive use.
For his part, Liu said he has never smoked marijuana and would not even if it was legal.
By the numbers, according to the Comptroller's office
20 percent excise tax would be applied, as well as a 8.875
$400 million generated in sales and excise taxes
$69 million of those taxes would go to the State and MTA as higher sales taxes
$31 million a year would be saved in reduced law enforcement and court costs by cutting misdemeanor arrests
Follow Danielle Tcholakian on Twitter @danielleiat