In 2016, over 18,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in New York City, according to New York’s Division of Criminal Justice Services. The data shows that while there has been a 37% dip in marijuana arrests in the city since 2013, last year was the first time the numbers increased since 2011. In fact, the 18,136 marijuana arrests last year marked an almost 10% jump when compared to 2015 police records.
All of these arrests were for a primary charge of 5th degree marijuana possession, which is a class B misdemeanor in New York. The possession charge itself has two distinctions, depending on what the police allege the suspect was accused of at the time of arrest. The first subsection of the charge is used for public consumption and possession in public view, whereas the second subsection is used for possession of over 25 grams.
According to S 221.10 of the New York Penal Code:
Criminal possession of marihuana in the fifth degree.
A person is guilty of criminal possession of marihuana in the fifth
degree when he knowingly and unlawfully possesses:
1. marihuana in a public place, as defined in section 240.00 of this
chapter, and such marihuana is burning or open to public view; or
2. one or more preparations, compounds, mixtures or substances
containing marihuana and the preparations, compounds, mixtures or
substances are of an aggregate weight of more than twenty-five grams.
Mayor Bill de Blasio vowed during his 2013 campaign for the position that he would “reduce arrests for marijuana violations,” which he did for two consecutive years before 2016. After winning the mayoral seat, de Blasio and former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton announced in 2014 that anyone found to be in possession of less than 25 grams would be issued a court summons rather than an arrest. The only caveats to that amendment in 2014 were that a person could still be arrested if they were “burning” or smoking the marijuana in public.
At the time in 2014, de Blasio said of the rule change, “There have been, in some cases, disastrous consequences for individuals and families,” de Blasio said. “It hurts their chances to get a good job, to get housing. It hurts their chances to qualify for a student loan; it can literally follow them the rest of their lives.”
“I think the fact that you will see fewer unnecessary arrests will be good for New York City as a whole. It will be good for New Yorkers of color and young people of color—there is no question about that,” de Blasio added. “We’ll see how the numbers come out over time but there’s no doubt in my mind it will be a very substantial impact. And for a lot of young people it means they will not have this reality holding them back; a summons is not going to affect their future. An arrest, could. And we want to avoid that unnecessary burden.”
Now that we can see how the numbers have come out over time, there is still cause for alarm. While arrest numbers have fallen nearly 40% since 2013, the same racial divide exists when you peel a few layers of the data back. For example, in 2013, 50% of those arrested for marijuana in New York City were African American, 37% were Hispanic, and only 9% were Caucasian. Last year, the numbers were eerily similar. In 2016, 46% of New Yorkers arrested for cannabis possession were African American, 39% were of Hispanic descent, and 10% were White.
“Yes, it’s down significantly from the height of stop and frisk, but there’s still lots of people that are getting caught up in these marijuana arrests” said Alyssa Aguilera, Executive Director of VOCAL-NY, an advocacy group that fights for victims of mass incarceration and the War on Drugs. “People from the mayor, to the NYPD, to Governor Cuomo have said these are needless, they’re racially biased and they only serve as a gateway to this mass incarceration.”
An interactive map of the city drills down where these arrests occur, pointing out that residents of neighborhoods that tend to have a higher Black and Hispanic population are far more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. Unfortunately, the map hasn’t changed much in the last few years.
“It is troubling that this map looks nearly identical to those from 2010 at the height of stop-and-frisk,” said Aguilera.
Back in November, Marijuana.com filed a Freedom of Information Act request with all 50 states to dig into the racial divide among those arrested for marijuana offenses.
From that report:
While every state in the chart above exhibits a racial disparity, New York, Nevada, North Carolina and South Carolina display the largest gap in arrest rates between blacks and whites; these states – with the exception of Nevada – are also at the higher end of the spectrum in terms of overall arrest rates.
New York had the second highest overall arrest rate and has the largest racial bias, with black people being more than 13 times as likely as white people to be arrested for marijuana possession in 2013. The bulk of arrests in New York State occur in the Bronx, Brooklyn and Manhattan boroughs that make up New York City. These districts also happen to disproportionately arrest black and Hispanic/Latino people substantially more than other regions of the city. Since 2014, arrests for marijuana possession in New York state have declined, while summonses for possession have gone up, reports the New York Times.
It’s not all bad news, though, as change may be coming at the state level that could subsequently fix this in one fell swoop. New York Governor Andrew Cuomo spelled out plans to fully decriminalize marijuana in his 2017 State of the State release. Gov. Cuomo stated that he will do his part to advance bills that nix criminal penalties for cannabis-related offenses. This isn’t Gov. Cuomo’s first rodeo, as he attempted to pass similar legislation in 2014 before being rebuked by Senate Republicans.
Let’s hope this time around, New Yorkers get some walk with all that talk.
Cover Image Courtesy of Allie Beckett