Racial disparity persists in NYC marijuana arrests

Despite a supposed push to end cop crackdowns on low-level pot offenses, New York City's minority citizens are still being arrested at an alarming rate.
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While 60 million Americans are living where marijuana is legal, New Yorkers are still being busted at record rates, according to newly released figures, with the city's minority population bearing the brunt of arrests.

 

Police data, first obtained and released by WNYC, showed that the NYPD arrested 16,925 people last year for low-level marijuana-related offenses — only a 1 percent dip from the previous year's total of 17,097.

 

That comes despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s outspoken criticism of cops focusing on marijuana offenses, with a goal of improving relations between police and community.

 

“This is something the mayor campaigned on, and while we saw a reduction, we really should’ve seen more progress with this,” said Alyssa Aguilera, co-executive director at VOCAL-NY. “The mayor and others are patting themselves on the back, but we can’t be satisfied with the mediocre progress that’s been done.”

 

Mayor's office spokesman Austin Finan, citing numbers that show marijuana possession arrests have decreased 38 percent while summonses have increased 58 percent during de Blasio’s term in office, said in an email that “arrest and summons data fluctuates from year to year. What’s important is the broader trend that shows a dramatic shift away from arrests in favor of summonses since 2013, proving this administration’s commitment to enhancing fairness without sacrificing safety or responsiveness to community concerns.”

Summonses increased to 21,024 in 2017, compared to 20,717 in 2016, WNYC reported.

But, still, this problem is a racial one.

A 2017 Drug Policy Alliance report found that of the more than 60,000 low-level marijuana arrests in de Blasio’s first three years in office, 86 percent of those people arrested were either black or Latino. Whites accounted for just 10 percent of those arrests, despite findings that show whites, blacks and Latinos smoke marijuana at the same rates.

“The racial disparity has been the same over the past 30 years, despite who was police commissioner, despite who was mayor,” said Melissa Moore, deputy state director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s New York office. “This is a systemic problem and comes down to how the NYPD chooses to enforce laws, and which communities they end up targeting.”

Moore pointed to the claim by City Hall that arrests occur as a result of where they get complaints from 311 and police lines. The calls are “widely and evenly distributed,” said Moore. “But then you look at where the arrests are happening, they’re focused in areas of color.”

Aguilera said that racial disparity arises “because their neighborhoods are being targeted for more policing — the NYPD continues to engage in broken windows tactics. You can go to Park Slope or Williamsburg and white people are smoking marijuana, not thinking twice about it.”

Aside from the racial disparity, Moore also pointed to the wasted resources of these efforts. Citing a report that showed marijuana enforcement cost the city $650 million dollars, Moore said, “That chunk of change could be much better suited going to education or fixing the MTA — anything that could actually really help New Yorkers.”

De Blasio talks pot

"We have more and more put into play the option of summonses as an alternative. That’s all working. It doesn’t mean the underlying offenses go away. So would I like to see the number go down? Sure, I’d like to see the number go down, but that would involve people not committing the original offense to begin with," Mayor de Blasio recently said on the “Brian Lehrer Show.” 

Pot-Related Arrests By The Numbers

60,000 — Total arrests in de Blasio’s first three years

86 percent of those arrested were black or Latino

677 — The number of people arrested in Harlem

14 — The number of people arrested in the neighboring Upper East Side

 
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