NYC: A Day in the Life of the Marijuana Arrest Capital of the World 


K. is a professional. He gets up early in the morning to trudge around north Brooklyn with a black leather briefcase. His customers demand the best, whether it's vacuum-sealed and sent through the mail, or stashed away in a jar of peanut butter with somebody's luggage. "I have some lawyer clients and business types, you know, people who have to think and function during the day," he says, "They go right for that pure sativa—the really heady high." And he has yet to have any run-ins with the law.

H. on the other hand, was booked for smoking in public late last year. "Sloppy cops," she says, "and they never read us our rights—fingerprinted me, but never took my mug shot." She had to go through the whole court process Downtown, where many others were being arraigned for the same possession charge. She got off with a year's probation, no fine.

At rush hour, M. comes down the stairs of the Nevins Street 2/3/4/5 subway. She spots a checkpoint at the bottom and immediately they call her over. "This is going to be harmless," the officer says. "He literally touched the outside and the bottom of my purse," she later recounts. Ten seconds later she's through the turnstile with two grams and two hash pipes undetected.

At night when, everyone's gone home and the streets are dead quiet, A. walks around the Financial District with C. smoking a joint. Really good stuff, he recalls. So good, he remembers saying to C., "Man, this is really great pot!" As soon as he looks up, he finds a "big bad copper" staring him down. "Drop it, dumbass!" The cop tells C. to scram, and he does. A. is searched and identified. Then he bites the bullet. "I pleaded and begged. Told him I was in college and shit," A. says, "He let me go, but I did lose that big roach."

And around midnight, B. rides his bike over to Bed-Stuy like he usually does every week or so. He locks it up on a corner post and goes up to his "guy's" house. Five minutes later, he's out of there, hops back on and rides off. Except he doesn't get very far. An NYPD cruiser pulls him over for no apparent reason. "We know what you're doing, empty your fucking pockets," they yell, "you wont get in trouble if you cooperate." He hasn't done anything wrong at this point, and they never tell him why he was pulled over, but he complies. "I did what they told me thinking I'd get off easy," B. says, pulling out two $20 bags in the process. "Nope! They booked me for having it 'open to public view'."

Just another day in the "Marijuana Arrest Capital of the World." That's right. Despite the fact pot smoking rates have stayed virtually unchanged over the past decade, the number one reason for arrest today in New York City is misdemeanor possession. In fact, in 2010, there were more arrests for possession than there were from 1978-96 put together—the first 25 years, that is, since possession of less than an once of marijuana was decriminalized in New York.

So, why have there been more pot busts under Bloomberg than under Koch, Dinkins and Giuliani combined?

"Didn't inhale" was still hanging heavy on everyone's mind when Mike Bloomberg got the pot question during his first run for Mayor. Surprisingly, he came right out of the hot box. "You bet I did," he said, "And I enjoyed it." NORML applauded him, saying, "At last, an honest politician." They ran a $500,000 ad campaign, setting him up as the poster boy for common sense.

Well, now we're knee deep in his third term and despite all the concern that the NYPD's bike law crackdown was going to divert police attention from the important stuff, the Times reported in February that there are more pot bust in New York today than ever before. About 140 people got cuffed and hauled away off the street for pot offenses every single day.

An answer to why that is may be found on the "NYPD Tapes" that fell into the hands of The Village Voice last summer, to too little fanfare. Brooklyn police officer Adrian Schoolcraft recorded hundred of hours of talk between his colleagues and superiors at Bed-Stuy's 81st precinct over the course of a year. Since then another set of tapes from a precinct in the Bronx has surfaced. These tapes reveal how aggressive the department's "stop and frisk" tactics have become, with commanding officers demanding their subordinates "turn this place into a ghost town." They show officers under constant, intense pressure to keep their "activity" up, filling arrest quotas that city lawyers continue to deny exist.The tapes show a department entirely obsessed with statistics, insistent upon manipulating them.

When cops stop and frisk someone, or coerce them into emptying their pockets (as in B.'s case), they drive them to commit a crime. It is only at the point when said person cooperates and reveals the controlled substance to the cop that they are in violation of the law against having marijuana "open to public view," Queens College Professor, Harry Levine, an expert on marijuana law enforcement, explains.

Police Commissioner Ray Kelly's "productivity goals," or "suggested numbers" have cops scurrying around at the end of each month, desperately trying to fill quotas for tickets and arrests. Potheads (and now cyclists) have proven the easiest prey because of how safe and quick the arrest is. "They provide overtime while giving the appearance of productivity," Levine told The Voice in 2008. But isn't it weird, statistically, that 86% of those arrested for possession were black or Latino, when more whites smoke pot?

According to NYU Criminal Law Professor Paul Chevigny, author of the book, Police Power: Police Abuses in New York City, black and Latino men between the ages of 18-25 in these "high crime" areas are just the most vulnerable because they might lack the political connections to complicate these arrests for the police. "It would not be politically possible to make so many stops of white people in middle class neighborhoods," he writes in an email. Racial preconceptions also play a role. "Cops, including some minority cops, are more likely to be suspicious of minority youths," he adds.

Yet of the non-violent offenders coerced into exposing their marijuana, inadvertently committing a crime, 60% had no prior criminal record, according to Levine's study. The mere cost of prosecuting these harmless misdemeanor offenders for the sake of crime statistics is questionable on its own, but these arrests take a far larger toll: they introduce young men of color into the criminal-justice system. As Levine points out, employers often don't hire those with criminal records and these busts can predestine a life of limited opportunity.

It isn't really surprising that marijuana arrest statistics reflect the broader racial prejudice ingrained in the system—it's just one more factor that perpetuates the cycle of inequality that plagues the city. In 2007, the top one percent took home 45 percent of the city's income, according to a study by the Fiscal Policy Institute. That's a wider income gap than during the Depression. The single richest New Yorker is worth more than the poorest 1.5 million combined. And none of these trends does the Bloomberg administration seek to reverse. Can't afford the subway, let alone a cab? They'll get you for riding your bike. Can't afford a few $6 pints? They'll get you for sparking a $5 joint.

At the end of the day, the former pothead Mayor gets to be "tough on crime," and cops get to fill their quotas with arrests, fill their databases with fingerprints and secure overtime pay without putting up all that much effort as taxpayers front the $75 million bill to perpetuate this policy. Meanwhile, thousands continue to spark up unmolested on the quiet streets by Washington Square, by Fort Greene Park, by Prospect Park, in Central Park, in their high-rise condos, in their lofts, in their brownstones and in their dorms, paying top dollar to speedy delivery services that pocket ludicrous profits—all tax-free, of course—for boutique-quality bud imported from California. Would you like the Blue Dream or the Cherry Blossom? (That one's organic!) Shouldn't be long until Bloomberg's super-wealthy peers are the only ones able to afford that either. Maybe then he'll "enjoy it" again.


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