MARIJUANA ARRESTS
Gateway into the Criminal Justice System

Ed.’s note: As first reported by WNYC’s Ailsa Chang on September 23, NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly issued an internal memo earlier that week aimed at clarifying the department’s approach to marijuana arrests. In the memo, Kelly states that when detained (as in a stop-and-frisk incident), suspects should not be “requested or compelled” by a police officer to produce a “public display” of marijuana (i.e. by pulling it out of their pockets), the action that provides grounds for an arrest. According to most estimates, more than two-thirds of marijuana arrests in recent years have resulted from such coercion.

Even if the memo does in fact produce a shift in the NYPD’s approach to marijuana arrests, several questions remain, including: What was the rationale behind the de facto policy? Why were young black and Latino males disproportionately targeted? And given the impacts an arrest record can have on an individual’s life, what can be done to redress the policy’s detrimental effects? In a memo to the New York State Senate this past June, Queens College sociologist Harry Levine outlined the scope of the problems.

—T. Hamm

Since 1977 and the passage of the Marijuana Reform Act, under New York State Law, carrying a small amount of marijuana in a pocket, backpack, or purse has been a violation (like a traffic violation), not a crime.

Nonetheless, in the 15 years from 1996 to 2010, the New York Police Department made 536,320 lowest level marijuana possession arrests under NY State Law 221.10. In the previous 15 years, from 1981 to 1995, the New York Police Department made only 33,770 of these arrests. The number of marijuana arrests from 1996 to 2010 is nearly 16 times the number of arrests in the previous period.1

In recent years, the number of marijuana possession arrests has grown ever larger. The arrests have nearly doubled since 2005, and in 2010 reached 50,383. Preliminary data from the first quarter of 2011 show that this year the NYPD is on track to make an even higher number of possession arrests.

In 2010, nearly 55,000 people were arrested for lowest-level marijuana possession in New York State and over 50,000 of those arrests were in New York City. Because of this historic increase in the number of arrests, it is appropriate to call this a marijuana arrest epidemic, and to describe what the NYPD has been doing as engaging in a marijuana arrest crusade.

These marijuana possession arrests cost the taxpayers of New York a great deal of money. These arrests, jailings, and prosecutions currently cost $1,500 to $2,000 or more per arrest. In recent years this amounts to $75 million or more a year. In 2010, when the NYPD made over 50,000 of these low-level marijuana arrests, New York City likely spent upwards of $100 million dollars arresting mainly young people, overwhelmingly blacks and Latinos, simply for possessing small amounts of marijuana. In the last 15 years, New York City has likely spent over a billion dollars making these arrests.


The marijuana possession arrests constitute an enormous drain on the resources of the police, courts, jails, prosecutors, legal aid services, and public defender attorneys. More people are now arrested for lowest-level marijuana possession than for any other single crime in New York City. In 2010, one out of every seven arrests in all of New York City was for marijuana possession. The arrests target young people. In 2010, 23 percent of the 50,300 people arrested for lowest-level marijuana possession were teenagers; 56 percent were under 25 years of age; and 68 percent were under 30 years of age.

The arrests target people who have never been convicted or even arrested before. Of the 50,300 people arrested in 2010, 30 percent had never been arrested before; another 40 percent had never been convicted of or plead guilty to anything, not even a misdemeanor. Mostly the charges were dismissed or dropped. In other words, 70 percent of the people arrested had never been convicted of any crime whatsoever. Another 11 percent had a previous conviction for a misdemeanor. Only 19 percent of the people arrested for marijuana possession had been previously convicted of a felony, mostly a low-level felony for nonviolent drug offenses such as selling small amounts of marijuana.

The youngest people, the majority of those arrested for marijuana, are the least likely to have criminal convictions. In 2010, 46 percent of the teenagers (ages 16 to 19) arrested for marijuana possession had never been arrested before for anything. Another 48 percent of the teenagers had never been convicted of even one misdemeanor. In 2010, 32 percent of the young people aged 20 to 24 had never been arrested before for anything, and another 45 percent had never been convicted of even one misdemeanor. The arrests are not capturing career criminals; they are ensnaring young people, overwhelmingly without any criminal convictions. For many of the young people, this is their first arrest.

The NYPD’s focus on arresting young people who have no criminal records simply to charge them with possession of small amounts of marijuana violates the intent of New York State Law. The introduction to The Marijuana Reform Act of 1977 as passed by the New York State Senate and Assembly, and signed by Governor Carey, says:

The legislature finds that arrests, criminal prosecutions, and criminal penalties are inappropriate for people who possess small quantities of marijuana for personal use. Every year, this process needlessly scars thousands of lives and wastes millions of dollars in law enforcement resources, while detracting from the prosecution of serious crimes.

The arrests unjustly target young African-Americans and Latinos and their neighborhoods. United States government surveys consistently find that young whites use marijuana at higher rates than young blacks and Latinos. But for many years, New York City has arrested African-Americans at seven times the rate of whites, and Latinos at nearly four times the rate of whites. From 1996 through 2010, blacks were 54 percent of the people arrested, but only 25 percent of the population; Latinos were 33 percent of the people arrested, but only 27 percent of the population; whites (non-Hispanic) were only 12 percent of the arrests, but constitute 35 percent of the population. For the last 15 years, 87 percent of the people arrested for marijuana possession have been blacks and Latinos, who use marijuana at lower rates than young whites.



The narcotics and patrol police making these arrests target primarily black and Latino precincts, which are disproportionately low-income neighborhoods. Included with this memo is a graph showing the marijuana possession arrests in 15 precincts with the lowest rates of marijuana arrests in New York City, and 15 other precincts with the highest rates of marijuana possession arrests in the city. This is new data and analysis, never before presented. The population of police precincts varies, so the number of arrests is less useful and accurate than the rate of arrests per hundred thousand residents. We averaged arrests for three years, from 2008 to 2010, to show this is not a one-year fluke but a consistent pattern.

The rates of arrest in the precincts with the lowest rates range from 16 to 130 a year per 100,000 residents. The rates of arrest in the precincts with the highest rates range from 995 to 2,507 a year. The average rate of arrests in the highest rate precincts is 1,473, and in the lowest it is only 79 a year. The average rate in the 15 neighborhoods with the highest rates is 18.6 times higher than in the 15 neighborhoods with the lowest rates. People in the targeted neighborhoods have over 18 times the chances of getting arrested for possessing marijuana. But even these figures do not fully reveal the disparities in marijuana arrest rates among the various neighborhoods of New York.

The 19th Precinct on the Upper East Side of Manhattan, where Mayor Michael Bloomberg lives, has the lowest rate of marijuana arrests in the city: a mere 16 arrests a year per hundred thousand residents. This is a wealthy and overwhelmingly white neighborhood: blacks and Latinos make up only 8 percent of the precinct’s population.

On the other end of the continuum are the Brooklyn neighborhoods of Ocean Hill-Brownsville and East New York (Precincts 73 and 75), the Manhattan neighborhoods of East Harlem and Washington Heights (Precincts 25 and 33), and the neighborhood of University Heights and Fordham in the Bronx (Precinct 44). The marijuana possession arrest rates in these precincts range from 100 times the rate of Bloomberg’s neighborhood to an astonishing 155 times the rate in Ocean-Hill Brownsville. The population in these precincts averages over 90 percent African-American and Latino.


The consequences of these arrests for the young people targeted are substantial and potentially life-long. Everyone arrested is handcuffed, taken to a police station, finger-printed, photographed, and now even their eyes are electronically scanned. Their personal information is sent to the FBI, and then to other public and private criminal records databases. These records are permanent and effectively cannot be expunged.

Twenty years ago, misdemeanor arrest and conviction records were papers kept in court storerooms and warehouses, often impossible to locate. Now they are computerized and instantly searchable on the Internet for $20 to $40 through commercial criminal record database services. A simple Google search for the phrase “criminal database” or “criminal records” produces numerous links to firms, some claiming that their searches are better than the others. Some offer “50 state searches” for as low as $12.95.

Employers, landlords, credit agencies, licensing boards for nurses and beauticians, schools, and banks now routinely search these databases for background checks on applicants. A simple arrest for marijuana possession can show up on criminal databases as a “drug arrest” without specifying the substance, the charge, or even if the person was convicted. Employers and landlords, faced with an abundance of applicants, often eliminate those with criminal arrest records, especially for drugs. Nurses, security guards, and others licensed by the state can lose their licenses and their jobs from just one misdemeanor marijuana arrest.

For legal immigrants, two guilty pleas to misdemeanor marijuana possession can lead to deportation, and one guilty plea can bar someone from ever returning to the United States.  Family court can remove children from a home because a parent is convicted or even just arrested for marijuana possession. A person cannot be considered for public housing with an “open criminal case,” including the typical probation for a first-time arrest for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

In short, for those concerned with the heavy policing of young people for simple possession of marijuana, for those concerned about the substantial racial disparities in the large number of marijuana possession arrests, and for those concerned with the substantial costs and consequences of making and processing all these arrests, there is much that can be reformed.



1. Editor’s note: Under the 1977 act, it is still illegal to smoke marijuana in public, or to have it “in public view.” In Stop and Frisk and other encounters with the NYPD, when a detained suspect pulls pot from his or her pocket, that action meets the latter criteria for arrest.

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Harry Levine

HARRY LEVINE is Professor of Sociology at Queens College. For more details on pot arrests in New York City and across the nation, visit the website he (along with Loren Siegel) created.