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Despite Leaders’ Progressive Promises, NYC Remains ’Marijuana Arrest Capital of the World’

Activists protest marijuana arrests in New York City
Andrew Burton

Despite Leaders’ Progressive Promises, NYC Remains ’Marijuana Arrest Capital of the World’


I love New York.

It’s my favorite city in the world. I live and work here by choice.

We get a lot of things right. Every day I walk down the street or hop on the subway, I am reminded that I am a citizen of a very big, incredibly diverse world.

But our progressive reputation in New York often far outpaces our reality.

Regularly seen as one of the most liberal cities in the world, we have a liberal Democrat as mayor and a City Council with 47 of 51 positions held by Democrats. That’s how I know that the ugliness of America’s justice system is not a conservative problem. If that were the case, New York’s justice system would be a model for the world.

It isn’t. In fact, for decades now, this city has been a model for how not to be.

What’s weird is that the city leaders here so often claim otherwise.

No issue typifies this gap between reputation and reality more than the quiet scandal of this city continuing to arrest, charge, and convict people of color for low-level marijuana offenses.

In spite of committing to simply ticketing people for possession of small amounts of marijuana, last year the NYPD arrested an astounding 16,925 people for it. These were not drug lords and kingpins. These were the very low-level offenses they said they’d stop arresting people for.

Do the math. That’s 46 people a day. It’s an enormous waste of time and resources. And it’s horribly disingenuous to publicly make the claim that the arrests are coming to an end when clearly they aren’t.

This literally makes New York City “the marijuana arrest capital of the world,” according to a recent report from the Drug Policy Alliance. And a staggering 86 percent of those arrests are of men and women of color.

And let’s be clear — whites and people of color use drugs at roughly the same rate. Some studies even show that whites actually sell drugs at a higher rate, but people of color make up 86 percent of the arrests here in New York nonetheless.

This is a scandal. And Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD continue to contort themselves to blame anything they can possibly think of other than institutional racism for this racial gulf in arrests and prosecutions.

De Blasio criticized the Drug Policy Alliance report, pointing out that marijuana possession arrests dropped by 37 percent between 2013 and 2016. But that doesn’t explain away the nearly 17,000 arrests last year.

NYPD Chief James P. O’Neill recently said they were making the arrests because people don’t like the smell. Really, man? How about we start arresting people for farts too? Arresting people because someone doesn’t like the smell? That’s not even a good lie.

This is one of many examples of city leaders here in New York talking the talk and just not walking the walk. Every time one of those ridiculous arrests is made, it sends that person down an outrageous rabbit hole in which they must now pay bail to get out, potentially get sent to the hell hole we know as Rikers Island, lose their jobs, be taken away from their families where they then miss things like birthdays and funerals. They then run the risk, again for something the city said they’d stop doing, of ultimately getting a criminal record for the very thing white people are doing with virtual impunity all over this city.

District attorneys have continued to prosecute these offenses as well. Bob Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, said that despite DAs’ promises to lighten up on marijuana possession, PROP’s court monitors still see possession cases every time they’re in court. “If [prosecutors] were serious about challenging the racial bias in NYPD tactics and the harm that broken windows policing inflicts, they would decline to prosecute virtually all marijuana possession arrests,” Gangi told The Appeal.

This isn’t just bad politics, or bad optics — lives are being ruined. This isn’t even a war on drugs — it’s a war on people — Black and brown people — all over New York City. I’m embarrassed. It’s a human rights debacle.

Not only that, it’s horrible business. In addition to the untold tens of millions of dollars it costs to arrest, book, prosecute, and house people arrested for smoking weed, exponentially more money is then lost in potential tax revenue that could be quickly generated if this city simply caught up with other cities, states, and countries around the world.

By one conservative estimate, New York could bring in $156.4 million per year in additional tax revenue if marijuana was legalized. Translation: That’s a ton of money that could be used across this city for education or new rec centers and after-school programming. That money could be used for smart reforms to our local justice system to help fund diversion programs and the rehab centers our city so desperately needs. We’re talking about over $1.5 billion of revenue that would be generated over a decade.

Studies now show that more marijuana is consumed in New York City than any other city in the world and instead of seeing this as a growth opportunity for business and taxes, it continues to be treated as an opportunity for mass incarceration and racial profiling.

Ultimately, I chalk this up to a peculiar sense of complacency among so-called liberals and Democrats who have all of the power in the world to do better, but choose not to. And let’s not kid ourselves — these are choices. The 17,000 annual arrests of people the city said they’d leave alone are 17,000 unique choices. Passing up billions in tax revenue for something that is already being done all over the country is a choice.

And politicians can and should be held accountable for their choices.

Thanks to Keli Young.