This week, the New York City Council held a joint hearing to discuss the city’s cannabis enforcement policies after activists decried an increasing number of minorities being arrested for pot possession, despite state and city policies decriminalizing low-level possession. Last year, cops arrested around 17,800 people for marijuana possession, 86% of whom were minorities. Though there have been frequent attempts to reduce the number of arrests, NYC still has one of the biggest street-level pot enforcement operations in the U.S.
New York state law classifies the possession of up to an ounce of cannabis as a non-arrestable offense, punishable by a $100 fine. In 2014, Mayor de Blasio and former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton announced that cops would begin to issue summonses for low-level cannabis possession rather than arresting the offender. But regardless of this policy, the state’s decriminalization law, and de Blasio’s constant promises to keep cops in check, the NYPD have made over 75,000 misdemeanor arrests for minor cannabis possession since 2014.
Around 86% of those arrested for possession during this time were black and Latino, and maps of precinct-level arrests show that these arrests are primarily occurring in neighborhoods of color, like Harlem, the Queens-Nassau border, and central Brooklyn. In response to the City Council’s criticism over this racial disparity in their arrests, NYPD officials testified that they were simply making arrests in neighborhoods where they received the most 911 calls about individuals smoking up in public.
“Where we make the majority of our arrests are where we tend to get the most complaints,” NYPD Chief Dermot Shea said at the hearing, the New York Daily News reports. The police force’s own complaint statistics, turned over to the council following the hearing, do not support this claim, though. Last year, out of the five neighborhoods with the most pot possession arrests, only two were among the five neighborhoods with the most pot complaints. In 2016, only one neighborhood in the list of top pot busts was also in the list of top pot complaints.
NYPD spokesman J. Peter Donald told the Daily News that street cops also respond to complaints made at community meetings, or directly to officers on the street, neither of which are reflected in the number of 911 calls. Donald also said that the number of arrests in East Harlem was particularly high because of a special task force cracking down on synthetic marijuana. “Our enforcement often is consistent with where we receive complaints and certainly where we observe illegal behavior,” he said. “We have an obligation — as the police — to be responsive.”
Regardless of the NYPD’s explanation for the disproportionate number of minorities arrested for marijuana, activists are pushing for cops to put a stop to weed possession busts altogether. “As New York finally sheds its embarrassing distinction of being the marijuana arrest capital of the world, we must repair the harms of prohibition and end the biased policing practices that have ruined the lives of so many young black and Latino New Yorkers,” Kassandra Frederique, New York State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. “Ultimately, the best way to address the disparities and challenges posed by prohibition is to legalize and regulate marijuana in New York.”