Police Memo on Marijuana Warns Against Some Arrests
By ELIZABETH A. HARRIS Published: September 23, 2011 nytimes.com
Here’s a thought….GO ARREST THE WHITE COLLARS ON WALL STREET. Marijuana didn’t crash the economy. Leave us alone. -UA
Amid criticism about the way New York City police officers enforce marijuana laws, Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly issued a memo to commanders this week reiterating that officers are not to arrest people who have small amounts of marijuana in their possession unless it is in public view.
The New York Legislature decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in the 1970s, making possession of 25 grams or less a violation of the law that in most cases would not bring a jail sentence. But possessing even small amounts of marijuana in public view remains a misdemeanor.
Just over 50,000 people were arrested on marijuana possession charges last year, a vast majority of them members of minorities and male. Critics say that as part of the Police Department’s stop-and-frisk policy, officers routinely tell suspects to empty their pockets and then, if marijuana is displayed, arrest them for having the drugs in public view, thereby pushing thousands of people toward criminality and into criminal justice system.
Critics said the commissioner’s memo, reported on Friday by WNYC, represented a major change of policy. “This will make a tremendous difference because tens of thousands of young people — predominately young people of color — will not be run through the system as criminals,” said Steven Banks, the attorney in chief at the Legal Aid Society, which has handled thousands of the cases.
Ethan Nadelmann, executive director of the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group that has been challenging the Police Department’s marijuana-arrest policies, said the order was directing a significant change in the way the police deal with people they arrest for small amounts of marijuana.
Mr. Nadelmann said that there was evidence of “gross racial disparity” in the enforcement of the marijuana laws and that “this appears to represent a major step forward.”
Although the memo begins, “Questions have been raised about the processing of certain marihuana arrests,” a spokesman for the Police Department said that the order was not in response to any particular incident and that it did not represent any change in policy. It was intended merely to remind officers of existing procedures, he said.
The memo says, “A crime will not be charged to an individual who is requested or compelled to engage in the behavior that results in the public display of marihuana.” The act of displaying it, the order continues, must be “actively undertaken of the subject’s own volition.”
Under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the number of low-level marijuana arrests has increased significantly. Mr. Bloomberg’s office declined to comment on Mr. Kelly’s order, but in the past, mayoral aides have said such arrests helped fight more serious crime, like the violence that tends to trail drugs.
Harry G. Levine, a sociologist at Queens College who has researched the issue, said public defenders and legal aid lawyers who have defended thousands of these cases estimate that between two-thirds and three-fourths of people arrested on charges of possession of small amounts of marijuana displayed it at an officer’s request.
“The police stop them, search them and tell them to empty their pockets,” Professor Levine said. “They don’t know the law doesn’t allow that.”
According to Professor Levine, on average over the past 15 years, 54 percent of people arrested for marijuana possession in New York City were black, 33 percent were Latino and 12 percent were white. National studies tend to show that young whites use marijuana at higher rates than blacks and Latinos.
In a March appearance before the City Council, Mr. Kelly reiterated the Bloomberg administration’s position that arrests for having marijuana in public view have helped keep crime low.
In response to council members who were skeptical of the policy, he said, “If you think the law is not written correctly, then you should petition the State Legislature to change it.”
Hakeem Jeffries, a Democratic assemblyman from Brooklyn, and Mark Grisanti, a Republican senator from Buffalo, have since sponsored a bill that would downgrade open possession of small amounts of marijuana from a misdemeanor to a violation.
City Hall is opposed to changing the law.
In June, Frank Barry, a mayoral aide, said downgrading the offense would “encourage smoking in the streets and in our parks, reversing successful efforts to clean up neighborhoods and eliminate the open-air drug markets like we used to find in Washington Square Park.”