By Christine Hauser
The number of people arrested for small amounts of marijuana in New York
City has increased tenfold in the past decade, with most of the arrests
occurring after the police either searched suspects or pressured them into
emptying their bags or pockets and displaying the drug during a
stop-and-frisk, a report (
http://www.nyclu.org/files/MARIJUANA-ARREST-CRUSADE_Final.pdf) said on
The report, released by the New York Civil Liberties Union, was based on
government statistics, interviews with lawyers, people who were arrested,
and former and current law enforcement officials. The civil liberties group
also took into account observations in criminal court. A Police Department
spokesman criticized the findings as flawed.
The report said the stop-and-frisk policy allows the police to make
misdemeanor arrests, which produce higher crime-fighting statistics, rather
than simply write them up as violations, which carry penalties similar to
"The penalty for having seven-eighths of an ounce of marijuana or less in
your pocket is the same as that for riding a bicycle on the sidewalk," said
an author of the report, Prof. Harry G. Levine, a sociologist at Queens
"It's $100," he said.
But in fact, instead of a $100 fine and a violation charge, police are
coaxing people to bring the marijuana into public view by requesting that
they hand over anything they are "not supposed to have," the report says. It
then becomes "burning or open to public view" and therefore a misdemeanor,
according to the New York State criminal code wording.
"Approximately two-thirds to three-quarters of those arrested for marijuana
possession were not smoking and most were not displaying the marijuana," the
Misdemeanor arrests also allow the police to funnel new information into
their databases from suspects, like fingerprints, photographs and DNA
samples, the report said.
The report says that the arrests are racially skewed. In 1997 through 2006,
there were 353,600 people arrested on misdemeanor marijuana possession
charges and fingerprinted in New York City, the study said, quoting
statistics from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services. The
misdemeanor marijuana arrests during the previous decade, 1987 through 1996,
were 30,100, the study said.
More than half of those arrested from 1997 through 2006 were black, who
accounted for 26 percent of the city's population, while Hispanics made up
31 percent of the arrests and 27 percent of the population. Whites accounted
for 53,000 arrests in the decade, while the report quoted federal studies as
saying that they used marijuana more often.
The police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, has denied that the city's police
officers are using racial profiling in conducting street stops.
The department's chief spokesman, Paul. J. Browne, said on Tuesday that the
report was flawed. He said there were 8,770 marijuana-related violations
from 1997 to 2006. In a statement, Mr. Browne said:
The N.Y.C.L.U. has used an advocate for marijuana legalization to mislead
the public with absurdly inflated numbers and false claims about bias. (Note
that the report was underwritten by the Marijuana Policy Project, a
pro-legalization organization). If the N.Y.C..L.U. is for legalization it
should just say so without resorting to smears. It has repackaged virtually
the same flawed presentation Harry Levine made to the marijuana legalization
lobby group NORML in Los Angeles last year. The report erroneously claims
that most of the over 300,000 persons arrested between 1997 and 2006 were
not smoking marijuana in public and that they possessed only small amounts
of marijuana; in other words, the infractions were violations. But the
actual violations total for 1997-2006 was 8,770; not the 350,000. Between
2002 and 2006, the total was 3,449. Here's the breakout by year:
2006: 704 (It was 683 in 2007)
The higher misdemeanor number was for individuals smoking marijuana in
public and /or in possession of between 25 grams to 8 ounces of marijuana,
not the "few grams" that Levine described when he first presented his
findings to NORML.
Overall marijuana arrests decreased between 2003 and 2006 by 25%, compared
to the previous four-year period - a point missing from the report.
Another point missing is the fact the attention to marijuana and lower level
crime in general has helped drive crime down. There were 6.4 million crimes
committed in New York City between 1977 and 1986; there were 6.0 million
crimes committed between 1987 and 1996; and there were 2.6 million crimes
committed between 1997-2006.
To claim bias, the report compared a national survey of individuals
volunteering information, with no way of confirming truthfulness, to actual
street arrests in New York. That's what Darrell Huff, in his classic "How to
Lie with Statistics," called "changing the subject" or an example of
"ecological fallacy," generalizing from aggregate statistics to individual
The N.Y.C.L.U. rebutted (this could go back and forth endlessly):
Nothing that Paul Browne says disputes the key facts presented in the
report: that more than 350,000 misdemeanor marijuana arrests have taken
place over the past decade, that the number of misdemeanor marijuana arrests
increased 10-fold over previous decades, and that there are stark racial and
gender disparities in who gets arrested for misdemeanor marijuana
possession. What he does dispute is the anecdotal report that the NYPD often
overcharges people who are in possession of small amounts of marijuana.
Defense lawyers, current and retired police officers, current and retired
prosecutors, and current and retired judges corroborate the researchers'
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