Mayor Bloomberg Makes a Small Step Toward a Rational Policy on Marijuana

In his final state of the city address as Mayor of New York, Michael Bloomberg made the welcome announcement that anyone caught in possession of marijuana would no longer have to spend a night in jail.

Effective next month, anyone who is arrested for marijuana possession will still be taken to the police station, fingerprinted and so on, but if there are no pending warrants, they will be released with a summons to appear in court. This is a small step in the right direction, but it does not go remotely far enough to undo the damage that has been inflicted upon poor and minority communities who have born the brunt of what activists call a “marijuana arrest crusade” that has flourished during the mayor’s reign.

In 2008, the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU) compiled a report (pdf) on the unprecedented eleven-fold increase in misdemeanor marijuana arrests in the city that began during Mayor Rudy Guiliani’s last term in office and continued with relish under Mayor Bloomberg. Since this “crusade” began, the number of marijuana arrests have increased from approximately 6000 per year in 1995 to nearly 40,000 in 2007.

It will come as no surprise to anyone familiar with the way of things in New York city that the vast majority of those arrested and jailed for smoking pot were blacks and hispanics, despite the fact that studies consistently show that white people use drugs like marijuana at much higher rates. It has been the constant cry of activists that white people enjoy a certain level of immunity from prosecution for minor drug offenses, while black and brown people do not. As Donna Lieberman, the Executive Director of the NYCLU put it: “What this amounts to is a two-tiered system of justice”. A democracy for some, a police state for others.

To compound the irony, the mayor admitted in 2002 that he was a pot smoker himself. When asked by the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws Foundation if he had ever tried the drug, he responded: “You bet I did. And I enjoyed it.” Needless to say, he regretted making these remarks almost immediately afterwards. But regrets aside, he remained firm in his view that marijuana should not be decriminalized and that the laws that exist should be enforced. It may not have been his intention that it would be poor black and brown people who felt the brunt of this law enforcement zeal rather than rich white people like himself, but that is how things have panned out.

As the NYCLU’s report details, between 1997 and 2006, 353,000 New Yorkers were arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana. All of these people were handcuffed, taken to the police station, fingerprinted and most of them spent a night in jail. Worse still, they have had to deal with the consequences of having a criminal record. A large majority – 85% – of those arrested were either black or hispanic. Only 15% were white.

The high rate of marijuana arrests are linked in part to the NYPD’s controversial “stop, question and frisk” policy that disproportionately impacts minorities.

– Read the entire article at The Guardian.