While nine states have legalized marijuana and several more are on the verge of doing so, the New York City Police Department is still arresting and ticketing people for possessing the drug at an unacceptable rate.
I worked for the NYPD and appreciate the steps they’ve taken recently to dial back marijuana enforcement. We’ve come a long way from the 41,000-plus possession arrests made back in 2001.
But in each of the past three years, the department has still arrested more than 16,000 people for marijuana possession. The arrest totals for 2016 and 2017 are actually higher than they were for 2015.
It’s unacceptable that we’re behind the curve on a criminal justice reform issue that hurts the lives of so many black and Latino people.
Of the 52,529 people arrested for marijuana possession between 2015 and 2017, more than 87% of them were either black or Hispanic, despite the fact that just about every piece of research we have says that whites use the drug just as frequently as people of color.
How long do we look the other way?
A New York gubernatorial candidate recently announced she would legalize and regulate marijuana for adults if elected; that change would be more than welcome. New York has legalized medical marijuana, a cautious step.
But we don’t need to wait for new leadership to carry out existing laws.
Laws meant to decriminalize possession of up to 25 grams of marijuana have been on the books in this state since the 1970s. They’re enforced in the breach. Nearly all of the low-level marijuana arrests made in the last four decades happened between 1997 and 2016 — and resulted in more than 710,000 arrests, primarily of black and Latino residents.
The various positions I held in the NYPD gave me a well-rounded perspective on how we address crime in our city. As we see in many big cities, gangs and members of organized crime engage in senseless acts of violence, and domestic violence and rape are all too common. Overall, crime rates have been declining for some time, but any amount of violence is too much.
Police exist to fill a critical role in our communities: keeping people safe and helping to bring perpetrators to justice. The opportunity to serve the public is the reason I enrolled in the police academy more than 25 years ago, and I stand by that decision.
I did not, however, join law enforcement to perpetuate a system of unfairly enforced laws that waste time and taxpayer resources and create no public safety benefit. I did not put on my uniform every morning so I could bring people into the station for holding a small amount of marijuana, churning them through the criminal justice system for no good reason.
Yet locking up people for the mere possession of marijuana was a big deal in the department. Some of my colleagues would purposely lock residents up at the end of their shift so that they could generate guaranteed overtime for the next eight hours, without consequence.
Supervisors would turn a blind eye to these low-level arrests in the name of increasing arrest numbers. I always frowned upon the practice of locking up people for low-level offenses that did not make a dent in serious crime in the community. Throughout my career, I tried to hold my officers to a higher standard and make sure that the arrests they made focused on bringing down violent crime.
But the system is the system, and it can overwhelm even the best intentions.
If we finally start honoring the marijuana decriminalization laws passed in the 1970s, we can save the NYPD thousands of man-hours each year and free up resources for the most serious crimes. Crime survivors deserve our utmost attention, and marijuana possession is nowhere near serious enough for the NYPD to be wasting their limited energy while serious crimes go unsolved.
Even a single marijuana arrest can have serious economic and social consequences for generations of families living in these neighborhoods. Costly court fees, fines, jail time, bail costs, possible loss of employment, and possible loss of housing make already struggling families that much more likely to fall into a cycle of poverty and crime – especially when there are children to feed or elderly family members to care for.
There’s no excuse for continuing this destructive enforcement strategy. The NYPD has bigger things to worry about, and the good residents of our city deserve relief from the unreasonable consequences of these arrests.