AMarijuana Arrest in the US – What's the Big Deal?

stop and frisk marijuana new york

Many marijuana-related arrests in the US may not result in a prison sentence; but this does not mean there is no damage done.

In 2013, US public support swung in favor of reforming cannabis laws for the first time, with 58 percent of Americans supporting the legalization of marijuana, according to a Gallup poll. This attitudinal shift sits in stark contrast to the most recent statistics on marijuana-related arrests in the country; across the United States, nearly 750,000 people were arrested in 2012 — equating to a marijuana-related arrest every 42 seconds — with 658,231 (88 percent) of those individuals charged for possession only.

Based on figures cited in the 2012 book Marijuana Legalization: What Everyone Needs to Knowapproximately 40,000 inmates in the US penitentiary system have a conviction related to marijuana, with an estimated half of those incarcerated solely for a marijuana offence (and less than 1 percent for possession alone). Thus, while marijuana arrests surge, they seemingly rarely translate into serving time.

This is not to say, though, that there is little or no impact on the person’s life if no sentence is ultimately received. With or without a conviction or custodial sentence, a marijuana arrest increases the vulnerability to severe, life-changing consequences — from diminishing education prospects and employment security, to housing opportunities and immigration status.

The devastation that exposure to the criminal justice system can cause is poignantly depicted in the below video, “A Marijuana Arrest”. Based in New York City (NYC), the short film shows the troubling case of an individual arrested for marijuana possession. Owing to the arrest — and irrespective of the fact that they were not, in fact, in possession and weren’t charged due to the lack of evidence — the individual ended up losing their job.

Although New York effectively decriminalized the possession of small amounts of marijuana in 1977, there is a significant loophole in the legislation regarding possession.

In short, “private” possession of up to 25 grams of marijuana is tolerated, on the condition that it is kept out of sight. On the other hand, “public” possession states marijuana cannot be possessed in open view, regardless of the amount. If this law is not complied with, a criminal misdemeanor charge can be issued. As cited in the video, the ambiguous nature of this statute – combined with exploitation by the police — has contributed, in part, to the rise in marijuana arrests across NYC, with an increase in arrests over a 20 year period from 812 (in 1992) to 39,320 (in 2012).

As the video notes, the motives behind police enforcement of the public possession law are highly questionable at times. Arguably driven by the requirement to meet a certain (illegal) arrest quota, a common police practice is to request “suspect” individuals to empty their pockets. If marijuana is found on the person, the possession moves from private to public. In such an instance, the police are effectively engineering marijuana misdemeanors.

Stemming from the police manipulation of such searches, many individuals are unfairly ensnared in the already overstretched criminal justice system. Attorney Scott Levy notes how these low-level marijuana arrests are “clogging [the] court system,” adding that while marijuana misdemeanors are “supposed to be brought to trial within 60 days [in New York] … 60 days can become 600 days.”

The potential damages associated with cannabis arrests, are furthermore (and sadly unsurprisingly), concentrated among certain ethnic groups who are already in some cases suffering from societal marginalization. As demonstrated by a comprehensive report by American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in 2013, on average, black people are 3.7 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana offences than white people, despite their long history of comparable usage levels.

Racial discrimination is even more explicit in specific areas across the US, with black people more likely to be arrested in Iowa (8.3 times), Washington DC (8 times), Minnesota (7.8 times) and Illinois (7.6 times).

It is clear that avoiding incarceration for cannabis does not mean that one has successfully escaped an event that could prove extremely detrimental to their future. The magnitude of the level of harm caused by a marijuana arrest alone must be considered, particularly in states where these laws are being disproportionately applied and leading to the increased marginalization of certain communities. Reform initiatives that are currently being brought into play in the US will help address these issues, but given the scale of the problem, there is a long way to go to combat these issues.