offenses in the U.S., is rethinking the practice, with an eye to avoid
stigmatizing young black and Latino men.
NEW YORK — When Alfredo Carrasquillo was busted last year for
possessing a nickle bag of weed, he spent a weekend in jail before
seeing a judge — pleading guilty to “possession in open view” in
exchange for the time just served.
The nickel bag he possessed was about the amount of marijuana needed
for one cigarette-size joint. And according to New York state law, he
could carry up to 30 of these — or less than 25 grams — without
criminal penalties, as long as they weren’t burning or “in open view.”
Still, New York is the most aggressive city in the most aggressive
state in the U.S. when it comes to marijuana arrests, and there were
nearly 29,000 arrests like this in the city in 2013. And the local
police tactic of stop-and-frisk has yielded hundreds of thousands of
such low-level possession arrests over the past decade, as out-of-view
nickle and dime bags — or even an overstuffed sandwich bag — become
exposed during the course of a legal search.
For people such as Carrasquillo, this becomes a misdemeanor crime that
will stay on his record.
“I missed three days of work, so I missed paid days,” he said. “I was
still able to keep my job, but it didn’t look good for me moving
forward cuz now I got this little stain of getting arrested.”
Carrasquillo is currently a civil rights organizer with VOCAL NY, an
advocacy group for drug law reform.
But across the country, this low-level stain is mostly borne by young
black and Latino men in urban areas, even as their white counterparts
use the drug more frequently. Nationwide, blacks are nearly four times
more likely than whites to be arrested for low-level possession, even
though more young white people aged 18 to 25 — the age group most
often arrested — consistently report using the drug at a higher rate
than their black and Latin counterparts, according to the National
Survey on Drug Use and Health from 2001-10.
This includes New York, where last year some 86 percent of its
marijuana arrests were of men like Carrasquillo. So far this year,
such arrests continue at a similar pace, with about 7,000 marijuana
busts in the first quarter, according to police statistics.
Such arrests in New York continue amid a general sea change in public
attitudes about marijuana use, especially for medical purposes.
Twenty-one states now allow use of the drug for certain conditions,
and Colorado and Washington State have decriminalized casual use of
“This unfair application of the laws is having devastating long-term
consequences for people of color,” said Gabriel Sayegh, state director
for the Drug Policy Alliance in New York, which advocates sweeping
changes in the war on drugs.
Activists had hoped to see a more immediate change to this disparity
with the new administration of New York Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), who
had railed against what he sees as unfair application of both the
police department’s stop-and-frisk tactic on minority communities and
the kinds of low-level and future-affecting stains it leaves on the
records of many young men.
But crime remains a delicate political issue in the city, and new
Police Commissioner Bill Bratton was a pioneer in the kind of
Compu-stat, “broken-windows” theory of urban policing that devotes
more resources to high-crime areas and seeks to prosecute even the
most minor offenses — a way to maintain a climate and expectation of
order, and thus reduce more serious offenses.
“The major focus of these arrests are in major cities and big
metropolitan areas,” said Harry Levine, a professor of sociology at
Queens College in New York who tracks marijuana arrests.
Indeed, before Commissioner Bratton’s first tenure in New York in the
administration of Mayor Rudolph Giuliani, the city arrested an average
of about 2,100 people a year for possessing marijuana. Since 1995, the
city has averaged 36,700, with a high of nearly 51,000 in 2011,
declining to 29,000 last year.
In light of the marijuana possession arrests continuing in the city,
the Brooklyn district attorney, Ken Thompson, is drawing up plans to
stop prosecuting such arrests. Last month, a memo from his office to
the New York Police Department reasoned that such prosecutions require
significant resources in time and effort — even while two-thirds of
the cases are dismissed.
At the same time, the district attorney’s office is implementing the
policy so that “individuals, and especially young people of color, do
not become unfairly burdened and stigmatized by involvement in the
criminal justice system for engaging in nonviolent conduct that poses
no threat of harm to persons or property,” according to the Thompson
memo, obtained by The New York Times.
“That’s a common sense change we have to make,” Mayor de Blasio told
reporters in Albany in April, responding to Mr. Thompson’s memo.
“Certainly our focus has been, Commissioner Bratton’s focus has been,
going after serious crime, and we’ve moved away from some of the
policies that I think were unfortunately creating a rift between
police and community, but also taking a lot of time and energy away
from addressing serious crime.”
The Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus Vance, echoed the idea this
week, saying police and prosecutors are considering “uniform, better,
and fairer” ways to handle marijuana arrests.
But both the mayor and commissioner have reacted cautiously since
then, saying only they are open to discussions with the attorneys
“We are continuing those conversations, and we’ll just have to wait to
see what they eventually promulgate,” Bratton said at news conference
Friday. Officials are discussing alternatives to misdemeanor arrests,
such as allowing young offenders to bypass the criminal justice system
[and stains on their records] and attend short behavioral programs
instead — like some who get traffic tickets.
New York could even serve as an example to urban areas in the rest of
the country, activists said.
“We’re hoping with these actions that the people start getting
processed in the system the same way,” said Mr. Sayegh. “But [the
Thompson memo] will hopefully stir up a broader conversation in
Brooklyn and the rest of the city about how to stop it.”