Carrying a little bit of pot is still a big deal in the Big Apple. As New York City is the largest city in the U.S. and deals with major violent crimes and even terrorism, you would think a little ganja would be such a big deal, but it is. There are more arrests for low-level pot possession in New York City than any other crime, accounting for about one of every seven cases that turn up in criminal courts, about 50,000 a year to be exact.
Critics say the deluge has been driven in part by the New York Police Department’s strategy of stopping people and frisking those whom police say meet crime suspects’ descriptions. More than a half a million people, mostly black and Hispanic men, were stopped last year as unfair targets, critics say. About 10 percent of stops result in arrests. The department says that the strategy’s main goal is to take guns off the street and prevent crime, and that the tactic is a life-saving tool. But critics say officers looking for guns in pockets more often find pot and — though state law says the drug is supposed to be in open view to warrant an arrest — lock up the possessor anyway.
In response, Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly recently reminded officers they can’t make arrests for small amounts of pot in people’s pockets or bags — and can’t trigger an arrest by searching people or telling them to empty their pockets. “No one has showed me any evidence that this is how a large number of arrests are being made,” he said. “But the allegation was made. So, in order to clear up any confusion that may exist, we put that order out to make certain that officers know that they cannot be the reason for someone displaying (marijuana) publicly.” Kelly said the vast majority of pot arrests come from undercover officers who witness hand-to-hand drug transactions or people smoking pot in public. And, the department says, as low-level arrests have risen, violent crime has decreased dramatically. But many New Yorkers, mostly black and Hispanic men, say they’re being targeted in the name of keeping the city safe.
Bronx community organizer Alfredo Carrasquillo, 27, estimated he’s been arrested on marijuana possession charges more than 20 times, starting when he was 14 and police ordered him to empty out his pockets outside his high school. He says he was arrested, but was never was found smoking the drug or holding it out in the open — though a 1977 state law says those with 25 grams of the drug or less in their pockets or bags should only be ticketed. Legally, it’s a violation that doesn’t result in a criminal record. “We weren’t stupid enough to smoke it in the middle of the day,” he said. Gabriel Sayegh, the New York director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group critical of the national war on drugs, said the department benefits from the arrests. “Every year, they’re bringing 50,000 people into their system,” he said. “A significant portion of whom have not been arrested before. Even if the cases ultimately get dismissed, as most first-time marijuana-possession arrests do, police net names, fingerprints and other information for law-enforcement databases, he noted.
New York’s lowest-level marijuana-possession charge — criminal possession of marijuana in the 5th degree, a misdemeanor — has been the most common arrest charge in the city for much of the past decade, and the numbers have been steadily rising. So far this year there have been 38,359 reported arrests. Last year, there were 50,377 arrests citywide, up from 46,492 in 2009, according to statistics from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services. That represents about 616 arrests per 100,000 city residents.