Tell the NY Legislature: Stop unlawful, racially-biased marijuana arrests

Dear friends,

New York’s police departments are targeting Black and Latino youth —subjecting our communities to illegal searches and frisks that lead to thousands of unlawful marijuana arrests. These arrests saddle people with permanent criminal records, which often carry devastating life consequences.[1]

Last September, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly ordered the NYPD to stop arresting people for small amounts of marijuana, but the police have continued their massive campaign of harassment with no significant decrease in the number of arrests.[2] More than 55,000 arrests for marijuana possession were made in 2011, the highest number of marijuana arrests ever recorded in New York’s history.[3] Shamefully, nearly 85% of all those arrested are Black and Latino — most of whom are under 30 years old — even though young whites use marijuana at higher rates.[4] These racially-biased arrests have severe and long-term consequences on people’s lives, often restricting a person’s work, housing, credit, and educational opportunities.[5]

Currently, there’s bipartisan reform legislation in front of the NY legislature — supported by Governor Cuomo — which would eliminate the false justification police are using to make marijuana arrests.[6] If passed, public and private possession of small amounts of marijuana would be a violation similar to a traffic ticket and would not lead to arrest. We have a great opportunity to do what New Yorkers have demanded for years — to end these discriminatory, destructive, and expensive practices once and for all, please join us in calling on the NY Legislature to act, it takes just a moment:

New York decriminalized marijuana in 1977, and possession of small amounts became a violation that triggers a $100 fine, and doesn’t result in arrest. For nearly fifteen years after decriminalization, there were relatively few marijuana possession arrests in NY. But changes in policing practices — fueled largely by the NYPD’s Stop and Frisk program — have led to dramatic increases in these arrests. In 1990, there were only 892 arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana in NYC. Since Michael Bloomberg became mayor in 2002, there have been over 400,000 marijuana possession arrests.[7]

A law was also put in place to punish people who smoke marijuana in public — making it a misdemeanor to have marijuana “in public view.” Most people arrested for marijuana in New York don’t actually have the drug “in public view.” Through questionable and illegal searches and seizures, police order people to empty out their pockets. Many people don’t know that they’re not legally required to do so, and comply with the officers. Once in “public view,” the marijuana possession becomes a misdemeanor — a criminal offense — and the person is arrested. In many cases, police reach into a person’s pockets — illegally, since they have no warrant. When they find marijuana, they make an arrest and falsely charge the person under the “public view” law.[8]

Targeting Black and Latino youth

Black and Latino youth in New York City feel most of the impact of this abusive law enforcement practice. Blacks and Latinos account for nearly 85% of the marijuana arrests in New York City, and almost 70% of people arrested for marijuana are under 30 years old.[9] But government studies show that Blacks and Latinos use marijuana less than Whites — 58.6% of Whites reported having used marijuana in their lifetime, versus 48.3% of Black people.[10]

Most of the arrests are the result of illegal searches and false charges, causing tens of thousands of people to be swept up into the criminal justice system. Every day, Black and Latino New Yorkers experience a New York that’s markedly different from that experienced by their White counterparts, and with police mostly targeting Black and Latino neighborhoods, harassment and abuse by police has become a daily reality for many young people of color in New York.

Police officers are under intense pressure to make as many arrests as possible, and marijuana arrests can be a relatively easy way for them to meet quotas.[11] That’s part of why these arrests have become such a huge portion of what officers do — arrests for small amounts of marijuana are now the number one arrest in New York City — one out of every seven arrests. That’s a huge amount of time and resources that police could spend focusing on more serious crimes. And, these arrests cost the state tens of millions each year. This money could go a long way in many other areas, especially at a time when tight city and state budgets are causing cuts to schools and all kinds of important services and programs.[12]

Momentum for change

Thanks in large part to our partners at the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), bipartisan reforms are under consideration in the NY State Legislature to standardize penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana, making both public and private possession a violation, similar to a traffic ticket, finishing the job the Legislature started in 1977. State legislative leaders need to hear from you that these marijuana arrests, especially in NYC, are illegal and racially-biased.

By demanding action from state elected officials, we can change these criminalization policies once and for all. Please join us in calling on state legislators to end NY’s discriminatory and illegal marijuana arrests, and when you do, please ask your friends and family to do the same:



7. See reference 3.
9. See reference 3.
10. See reference 4.

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