Racial Disparities in Marijuana Arrests Could Advance Legalization in New York


Notice that neighborhoods and subways in New York City reek of weed lately? That’s not just happening in Queens. Where I work in downtown Manhattan, the same goes. A street mainly populated by men in suits often smells heavily of marijuana and it’s hard to pinpoint the origin. My implicit bias tries to identify the culprit and I don’t immediately think to blame a man in a suit when, in fact, it is he who reeks.

The reality is that more and more people of all walks of life are smoking pot in New York City. Nevertheless, only a select demographic of people are getting arrested for it. Let me put it this way: it’s not the men in suits.

Over the past few years, Mayor de Blasio’s administration scaled back arrests for marijuana, generally arresting people only when they’re caught smoking in public. When someone has pot in their possession but isn’t smoking it, they now receive a summons. Perhaps that explains the frequency of the stench around town. While it’s clear that more and more people are comfortable smoking pot, under de Blasio’s new policy, 86% of people getting arrested are black or brown. The NYPD explained the disparity by saying that cops are going after pot smokers in neighborhoods where residents are calling to complain. The NYPD said that complaints in neighborhoods predominantly populated by blacks and Latinos receive the greatest number of complaints. But recent data paints a different picture. Reports by the Daily News, Politico and the New York Times show that the most arrests aren’t taking place in neighborhoods where people make the most 911 and 311 complaints.

Last weekend, a New York Times investigation showed that the complaints about marijuana use do not fully account for the racial arrest gap. When complaints were held constant, “the police almost always made arrests at a higher rate in the area with more black citizens.” Studies have historically proven that people across most racial groups use marijuana at comparable rates. But the arrest rates for black and brown citizens are significantly higher than they are for whites. Why? Because young men of color are more often viewed with a suspicious eye and face increased attention from the police.

Across New York City, for example, the police arrested blacks on low-level marijuana charges at eight times the rate of whites over the last three years. Latinos were arrested at five times the rate of whites. In Queens, for example. the police precinct covering majority-black (and Indo-Caribbean) in Queens Village had an arrest rate more than 10 times that of the precinct that serves Forest Hills, where minorities are just a speck of the population, even though the rate of complaints was the same.

This unjust discovery has prompted a number of conversations among governmental officials. In an interview with NY1’s Errol Louis on Monday night, Mayor de Blasio said of the racial disparities, “We have to do better there’s no question about it.” As he has in the past, the Mayor quickly highlighted that arrests for all crimes had dropped by about 100,000 over the last three years, and marijuana arrests by 37,000 in three years as the city moved to issuing summonses in most cases of possession. Earlier in the week, NYPD Police Commissioner James O’Neill affirmed that about 36% of people arrested for possession of marijuana last year had no prior criminal history. “Many New Yorkers clearly feel this behavior reduces their quality of life. In areas of our city in which marijuana enforcement appears to be disproportionate to complaints received, we are working to understand the reasons for that activity and reviewing whether they are the result of local complaints, larger numbers of officers patrolling given areas, or other reasons,” O’Neill said. “I steadfastly reject the idea that these arrests are racially motivated.”

At the Center for American Progress conference in Washington, D.C. earlier this week, Mayor de Blasio announced that: “the NYPD will overhaul and reform its policies related to marijuana enforcement in the next 30 days.” “We must and we will end unnecessary arrests and end disparity in enforcement — it’s time for those to be a thing of the past in New York City and all over this country.”

This is all compounded with a push at the State level to legalize marijuana in New York. The race for governor has brought even more visibility to the issue with candidate Cynthia Nixon endorsing the legalization. Despite historic opposition from Governor Andrew Cuomo on legalization of marijuana, the state Democratic Party reportedly plans to pass a resolution at its convention next week to endorse legalization. Even the Governor seems to be shifting his tone. In January 2018, Cuomo called for a study to be done on the legalization of marijuana. The Governor announced this week that the study’s findings will be released in mere days.

New York City’s Comptroller beat the Governor to the punch though. According to a report released by Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office on Tuesday, New York State stands to gain a lot by legalizing marijuana. The Comptroller’s analysis said the state could generate $436 million annually and New York City $336 million by taxing the sale of marijuana in what would be a $3 billion market. Stringer said the money generated could be used to aid communities “most damaged by decades of criminalizing marijuana usage and possession.” “This is not just about dollars — it’s about justice. Not only is marijuana an untapped revenue source for the City and the State, but the prosecution of marijuana-related crimes has had a devastating and disproportionate impact on Black and Hispanic communities for far too long,” Stringer said.

Stringer’s report estimates there are roughly 1.5 million weed smokers throughout New York State — including 550,000 in New York City. That creates a potential market of $3.1 billion statewide for legalized marijuana, including $1.1 billion in the five boroughs alone. The study assumes New York pot smokers would spend about $2,080 a year each to get high, similar to what smokers spend in Washington and Colorado, where marijuana sales are already legal. The study also assumes the city would impose the same 25 percent excise tax on marijuana, which is currently similarly levied on cigarettes and alcohol, to generate $336 million.

While quality of life issues should absolutely be considered, perhaps the legalization of marijuana would be a good thing for minority New Yorkers, especially young men of color, whose only contact with the criminal justice system is often a petty marijuana arrest. As this week’s news demonstrated, it’s primarily black and brown men who keep getting arrested. Most of these individuals have never been convicted of a crime – they don’t pose a danger to society. When they’re arrested for low-level marijuana offenses, the arrests stand to do great damage to their lives. Yes, the charges are typically dismissed if the person stays out of trouble for a year, but over that period, having an open court record can mean getting shut out of certain job opportunities and housing. If we’re concerned about our sons becoming potheads, perhaps instead of leaving it up to law enforcement to scare the habit out of them, we should take greater measures to raise our young men right, not just in their childhood, but also when they’re young adults. And perhaps it’s time New York cashes in on a market that will continue whether or not marijuana is legalized.


The views expressed in this column are solely those of the writer and do not necessarily represent the views of the THE WEST INDIAN.