New York: Community Groups Demand An End To Costly 'Stop-and-Frisk' Marijuana Arrests

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New Poll: At Least 60% of All Voters Continue to Call for Fixing Marijuana Possession Laws, Including Half of Republicans; Poll is Third This Year Showing Strong Majority Support for Reform

Thousands More New Yorkers Have Been Arrested – at Cost of Estimated $7.5 Million – for Possessing Small Amounts of Marijuana Since April 1 When Reform Talks Failed During Budget Negotiation

By Steve Elliott
Hemp News

Members of the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus on Wednesday gathered with community groups to demand an end to the biased, costly and deceptive practice of falsely arresting tens of thousands of people in New York for low-level marijuana possession every year.

Dozens of advocates and impacted people from around the state joined them at a press conference and rally to urge passage of sensible marijuana decriminalization legislation, A.6716A (Camara)/S.3105A (Squadron). The proposal would decriminalize possessing up to 15 grams of marijuana in public view; smoking in public would remain a misdemeanor.

Community members and elected officials are demanding that leadership in Albany make fixing this law a top priority. The bill would help end the practice of arresting tens of thousands of young people per year for possessing marijuana in public view when police demand that someone “empty their pockets” during a stop-and-frisk encounter.

In January of this year, during his State of the State speech, Governor Andrew Cuomo made a bold call to stop discrimination in New York. “We are one New York, and as one New York we will not tolerate discrimination,” he said. He noted the “challenge posed by the ‘stop and frisk’ police policies,” and he cited the related marijuana arrest problem in New York. The Governor called for immediate action then: “These arrests stigmatize, they criminalize, they create a permanent record. It's not fair. It's not right. It must end. And it must end now.”

Energized by the Governor’s call, community groups and legislators rallied for reform week after week in Albany and around New York. Then, in March, it appeared that sensible reform was slated to pass. But in typical Albany fashion, confusion among leadership in the capital stymied the effort.

"No more delays, no more waiting – it’s time for real reform," said Assemblyman Karim Camara, Chair of the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus, (D-Brooklyn-43rd AD). "This broken law is harming the future of everyday New Yorkers, particularly minority youth, leading to the deterioration of communities across the state.

"Not only does allowing these arrests directly impact the lives of individuals and their communities, they are a gross misappropriation of city and state resources, wasting millions of taxpayer dollars in law enforcement resources, while detracting from the prosecution of serious crime," Camara said. "This legislation will ensure that individuals who possess small amounts of marijuana are sanctioned appropriately while avoiding permanent damage on their records.

"This legislation – which enjoys broad support across the state and among law enforcement -- will bring greater fairness to our justice system," Camara said. "The time for action is now.”

“Stop and frisk is meant to curb gun violence, but guns are found in less than 0.2 percent of stops according to the ACLU,” said Democratic Conference Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. "Instead, an overwhelming percentage of stops result in an arrest for small amounts of marijuana.

"These arrests, which are usually of young people of color, go on permanent records which impact housing, educational and professional prospects," Stewart-Cousins said. "We must pass a marijuana standardization law now."

Since April, thousands more people have been needlessly arrested since the legislature failed to act in March – most of them Black and Latino – costing taxpayers millions of dollars and wasting an estimated 10,000 police hours.

"Far too often, entire New York communities are made to feel like suspects targeted by law enforcement instead of citizens protected by it," said Senator Daniel Squadron, a sponsor of reform legislation in the Senate. "Let's be clear: a large number of people carry small amounts of marijuana.

"But the vast majority of people who get criminal records for it are young black and Latino men because of stop-and-frisk policy," Squadron said. "That's simply immoral and unacceptable.

"None of us should accept living in a place where the color of your skin, your gender, and your age define whether your behavior is a criminal act or not," Squadron said. "Reforming the in-plain-view marijuana statute and the inconsistent way it's enforced would be an important step toward ending these inequities. It's time for Albany to act.”

“We cannot allow the 2013 Legislative Session to conclude without reforming these laws that are racially biased and targeted toward young adults of color," said Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson, who has sponsored reform legislation in the Senate. "If we do not come up with a fair and equal policing practice regarding small amounts of marijuana then we will continue damaging the potential of many young adults who will become part of the criminal justice system based upon a biased application of the law."

About 45,000 people were arrested in New York for marijuana possession in 2012 alone; nearly 40,000 of those arrests were in New York City, far exceeding the total marijuana arrests for the 15-year period from 1981-1995. The cost to taxpayers was nearly $75 million last year alone, and over $600 million in the last decade, a profound waste of taxpayer money.

A report released this March by the Drug Policy Alliance found that the NYPD spent 1 million hours making arrests for marijuana possession between 2002-2012. The report found that police spent an average of 2.5 man-hours on such arrests, amounting to 98,045 hours in 2012.

"Too many young people begin their adult lives with criminal records, while dedicated police officers use up valuable time processing minor marijuana-related arrests," said Assemblyman David Gantt. "This must be addressed by enacting statewide legislation that decriminalizes possession of small amounts of marijuana."

“It is unacceptable that a technicality is saddling thousands of New Yorkers, in particular minorities, with criminal records and costing tax payers millions of dollars,” said Senator Gustavo Rivera. “Standardizing marijuana penalties is an essential step in creating a more efficient and just criminal justice system.”

Nearly 85 percent of those arrested are black and Latino –- mostly young men -– even though government studies show that young white men use marijuana at higher rates. Fixing the law and standardizing penalties will bring us closer to ending racially discriminatory marijuana arrest practices focusing our limited resources more effectively.

"With the support from the majority of New Yorkers, I and my colleagues in the Assembly have been pushing for the reform of marijuana laws to reflect more sensible legislation,” said Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez. “I sincerely hope that the members of Senate and, Governor Cuomo, will also uphold the will of the people so that the message will be loud and clear that New York will no longer stand by and allow these policies to needlessly saddle our youth with criminal records and waste tax payer dollars.

"Rational laws must be implemented immediately to replace these inefficient policies that have truly gone on long enough," Rodriguez said.

The reforms have broad-based support. A new poll released Monday by the Sienna Research Institute found that 60 percent of New Yorkers support the proposal to fix the state’s broken marijuana possession law, making it the third poll this year to register at least 60 percent support for the measure.

"If we could stop the criminalization of tens of thousands of white youth every year by fixing a loophole that nearly everyone recognizes as a problem, I have no doubt the legislature would act without delay," said Alfredo Carrasquillo, VOCAL-NY's Civil Rights Community Organizer. "But the fact is that it's Black and Latino youth who are being stopped by the police, illegally searched, wrongfully arrested for marijuana possession, and then stuck with the stigma and consequences that come with it.

"So instead of rushing to fix the problem, political leaders in Albany have allowed a widely supported proposal by Governor Cuomo to just slip off the table without explanation," Carrasquillo said.

The reform proposal is also supported by dozens of community organizations throughout the state, state legislators, the NYC Council, and Mayor Bloomberg. Additionally, the reforms are supported by law enforcement leaders from across the state, including NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly; all five NYC District Attorneys (Democrat and Republican); District Attorneys from Long Island, Buffalo and Albany; and other police leaders, like the Albany Sheriff and Rochester Police Chief.

The New York Times, the Daily News, the New York Post, the Syracuse Times-Standard, and the Buffalo News are among the papers that have written editorials in support the of the reform.

"The law as it stands is harming New Yorkers in serious ways," said Maurisol Felix, a member of the Bronx Defenders Organizing Project. "Manufactured misdemeanor arrests have real consequences. It's time to stop putting Black and Latino New Yorkers at risk."

"It feels like I can't step out of my house without being stopped by the police and have them go through my pockets," said Shapriece Townsend, a Harlem resident and VOCAL-NY leader who has been wrongfully arrested for marijuana possession. "If police acted the same way to white residents in neighborhoods like the Upper East Side, they'd probably find the same number of people carrying marijuana.

"But I can't imagine political leaders in Albany would tolerate sons and daughters in those neighborhoods being carted off to jail without immediately acting to stop these pointless and costly arrests," Townsend said.

“Enough is enough,” said gabriel sayegh, director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s New York Office. “Albany leaders need to pass this reform now or explain why they’ve failed to act and why low income people in New York -- especially people of color – are always told to wait.

"Wait for reform, wait for justice, wait for equality and fairness," lamented sayegh. "Ending blatant and rampant discrimination should be a top priority in Albany. The fact that we have to remind our elected leaders of this fact is an indication of how backwards Albany really is.”

(Photo: Stokkete/Shutterstock)