Push for Marijuana Arrests in NY has Side Effects
The Bloomberg administration says that by arresting more than 350,000 people for having small amounts of marijuana since 2002, the police have helped drive down serious crime — and that the consequences for the people locked up have been minimal.
Nearly 90 percent of those arrested on charges of personal possession of marijuana are black or Latino, although its use by young white people is rampant in affluent quarters of the city.
Faced with criticism from members of the City Council and the State Legislature, aides to Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg have emphasized that few of those arrested on pot charges actually end up with criminal convictions because most cases are dismissed and sealed after one year. In effect, they say, the arrest process itself — which can stretch for 24 hours or more, under squalid conditions in holding pens — is the extent of the punishment.
Yet there are other, hidden consequences, say lawyers and advocates who work with those arrested. People regularly lose jobs for missing work as they wait to see a judge or because their employers do not want anyone connected with even minor drug offenses on the payroll, said Marlen Bodden, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society.
The case of Alika, 26, a single mother from Brooklyn, shows the collateral damage, said Ms. Bodden, who represented her. She asked that Alika’s last name not be published because of concerns about future jobs.
One Saturday afternoon in February, Alika, who lives in the Marcus Garvey Houses, was stopped by two police officers as she walked across the development. They asked for identification.
“Then they asked me do I have anything else on me, like a gun or a knife,” Alika said on Thursday. “I told them I had a bag of marijuana in my purse. They said, ‘Let’s see it.’ If I didn’t show it to them, they were going bring a lady cop to search me. If she found anything, they were going to send me direct to booking and spend the night.”
She removed the marijuana from her purse, an act that transformed it from a violation — which is like a traffic ticket — into a misdemeanor for the crime of openly displaying it. She was handcuffed. Eight hours later, she was released. At the end of March, a judge said the charges would be dropped if she stayed out of trouble for a year.
A week later, she was hit with a penalty that did not involve jail: she was fired by her employer, the New York City Housing Authority. She had been paid $12 an hour as a janitor.
On average last year, someone was arrested every 10 minutes in New York City for possessing a few pinches of marijuana — less than 25 grams — and no other crime. More arrests, 50,383, were made in 2010 on this charge than on any other, and arrests are being made at an even faster pace this year. “They’re clogging the courts and ruining people’s lives, in terms of potential collateral consequences for housing, employment, immigration,” said Steven Banks, the attorney in chief of the Legal Aid Society, which represented 30,000 people in minor marijuana cases last year.
An aide to Mr. Bloomberg, Frank Barry, said that state law did not permit employers to ask about old arrests.
Immigrants are deported if they are convicted twice on marijuana charges, said Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.
Ms. Bodden of Legal Aid said many of her clients were home health care attendants or security guards for state or city agencies; the agencies are notified when an employee is arrested. This puts their licenses at risk, she said.
Courts usually handle the marijuana arrests with a form of probation known as “adjournment in contemplation of dismissal”; records are sealed if the person stays out of trouble for a year.
Whether the consequences of arrests for marijuana are dire or simply a hassle, why are they visited almost entirely on nonwhite neighborhoods? Mr. Barry said that the city’s focus on quality-of-life issues in high crime areas had “saved thousands of lives, and the gains have been biggest in African-American and Latino communities.”
Testing often showed marijuana in the urine of people arrested in New York City, he said: “The data shows an inextricable link between drugs and crime, and marijuana is the most prevalent drug used by criminals.”
Wouldn’t those same urine tests, conducted not in jails but in better-off neighborhoods, show “inextricable” links between pot and banking — or the law or academia? Or even politics.
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