By David Brand
Even as New York decriminalizes marijuana possession and the NYPD significantly curtails the number of weed arrests citywide, intense racial disparities persist among those who are arrested with small amounts of bud.
Black and Latinx New Yorkers accounted for 94 percent of all low-level marijuana arrests in New York City during the first six months of the year, according to NYPD arrest data compiled by the state.
The NYPD arrested 1,436 people for fifth-degree marijuana possession or fourth-degree sale from January to June — and 1,349 of the people arrested were identified as black or Hispanic, according to the NYS Division of Criminal Justice Services. The state agency publishes quarterly reports on race and ethnicity data for certain felony and misdemeanor charges.
Police Reform Organizing Project Director Robert Gangi said the “blatant” disparity in marijuana arrests and other low-level offenses reflect concentrated policing in communities of color.
“The reason is fundamentally where the police are deployed and what directions they’re given,” said Gangi, who analyzes the reports with PROP. “They are deployed primarily in low-income communities of color … and they’re told to practice ‘broken windows’ policing.”
There were 820 people arrested for fifth-degree marijuana possession during the first six months of the year; 506 were identified as black and 260 were identified as Hispanic by the NYPD.
Of the 616 people arrested for fourth-degree sale, 403 were black and and 180 Hispanic, the NYPD reported.
The most recent quarterly report did not include marijuana arrest data for white or Asian offenders. The data notes that the NYPD did not record race or ethnicity data for all arrests. Research consistently shows that people smoke marijuana at similar rates across racial and ethnic groups.
The Legal Aid Society conducted a demographic analysis of their clients charged with fourth- and fifth-degree marijuana possession and found that Queens led the five boroughs in low-level weed arrests during the first three months of the year. Public defenders from Legal Aid represent about half of low-income defendants citywide.
Unlike district attorneys in Brooklyn and Manhattan, the Queens District Attorney’s Office continues to prosecute low-level marijuana offenses, though the offenses rarely result in jail time.
Borough President Melinda Katz, the Democratic nominee for Queens DA, has pledged not to prosecute marijuana misdemeanors, which could discourage police in Queens from making arrests for weed.
The racial disparities in marijuana arrests mirror the persistent disparities in fare evasion arrests. More than 85 percent of people arrested for fare evasion between April and June were black or Latinx, according to data published by the NYPD under city law.
“[Racial disparities] mark every public policy area,” Gangi said. “Where it’s most harmful, and most egregious in terms of where harm is done to people of color, is in the criminal justice system because it leads to mass incarceration.”