Great news! New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo announced yesterday that he supports ending an egregious police policy in New York that has lead law enforcement to unlawfully target and arrest tens of thousands of mostly young people of color every year for marijuana possession, even though the state decriminalized possession of small quantities in the ’70s.
What's more interesting? By his side was New York Police Department Commissioner Ray Kelly, who was there also on behalf of Mayor Bloomberg, who also supports this policy change.
So why is this a big deal?
First, both Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Kelly vehemently opposed any change in the past. But let's go back 35 years in New York's history to paint the context. In 1977, New York State decriminalized private possession of small amounts of marijuana in order to preserve scarce police resources and prevent needless criminalization. Under the decriminalization law, possessing small amounts of marijuana was treated as a violation, like a traffic ticket. However, possession in public view is a misdemeanor. From 1977 to about 1995 there were few arrests for possessing marijuana in public view.
But that all changed when former Mayor Rudy Giuliani introduced zero tolerance policing. And from 1996 on, the NYPD has falsely charged people the misdemeanor possession of small amounts of marijuana in public view instead of the violation. This is because when the NYPD is stopping and frisking more than a half million mostly young black and Latino men, they sometimes recover small amounts of marijuana from a pocket or bag; the police then charge them with marijuana possession in public view or burning marijuana. Last year, more that 50k people in NYC were charged for marijuana possession in public view, making it the number one arrest in New York City. In fact, over the last five years under Mayor Bloomberg, the NYPD made more marijuana arrests than in the twenty-four years under Mayors Giuliani, Dinkins and Koch combined. That's a lot of arrests!
When comes down to it, these marijuana possession arrests cost New York City $75 million a year (and NY State even more!), are racially biased—84% of those arrested are people of color despite federal studies consistently showing white people use marijuana at higher rates—and result form illegal searches and false charges from stop-and-frisks.
Organizations such as the Drug Policy Alliance, Institute for Juvenile Justice Reforms and Alternatives, and VOCAL New York have been hammering away raising the profile of this issue for a while now. And people have taken notice: media outlets such as the New York Times, Associated Press, and even the NY Daily News have all reported on this issue and even called for an end to illegal and racially biased marijuana arrests.