How New York Quietly Ended Its Street Drug War

New data analyzed by VICE News reveals a monumental drop in arrests and convictions for low level drug crime in NYC, as the city finally tries to disentangle itself from a war on drugs that it once led on the world stage.

01 February 2021, 1:52pm

New York City, which popularized controversial, zero tolerance street policing tactics in the 1990s, has dramatically scaled back its war on drugs over the past decade, with the number of street drug busts plummeting by 80 percent, according to data compiled for VICE News.

In a city where in the last 10 years more than 80 percent of drug possession arrests and 90 percent of drug selling arrests have been of Black and Hispanic people, the figures reveal the number of arrests for drug possession and low-level drug selling—covering all drugs, not just weed—tumbled from 107,848 in 2009 to 22,969 in 2019.

And it’s not just about arrests; convictions for these offenses shrunk too, from 32,919 in 2009 to 6,744 last year. 

The data, from New York’s Division of Criminal Justice Services, lays out the full extent to which the NYPD and prosecutors, with backing from Mayor Bill de Blasio—are de-prioritizing low-level drug offenses in a city once notorious for a  “broken windows” policy that championed stop and frisk and mass arrests for low level drug offenses. 

Photo: Robyn Collinson

It’s a policy driven largely by a concerted fightback by New Yorkers against a long track record of racially biased, overzealous drug policing. In New York and across America police have been using drug laws—and exaggerated myths about the effects of drugs—as an excuse to bully civilians and sometimes use deadly force. The move away from intrusive street drug searches in New York, during which time complaints against use of force by the NYPD fell by nearly 60 percent and police firearm discharges were halved, could have a huge knock-on effect globally, sparking a shift in the way drugs are policed in other major cities around the world.

“This is highly significant. It’s a test case,” said Melissa Moore, New York State director at the Drug Policy Alliance. “It shows the NYPD can massively reduce drug arrests and the sky does not fall in. We are not seeing the increase in trouble on the streets that the doom-mongers were predicting. 

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The city has severely reduced the number of young people arrested and convicted for low-level drug offenses. Arrests for drug possession and drug sale offenses for people 21 and under tumbled by over 90 percent, from 25,202 in 2009 to 1,852 in 2019. Drug possession convictions for this age group also fell sharply, with drug sale convictions almost disappearing, from 918 in 2009 to just 74 last year.

This is not just about police going easier on people using and selling cannabis. There were similar falls for non-weed possession and sales offenses. For example, there was a 73 percent drop in arrests for third-degree drug sales, a non-cannabis felony offense that covers sales up to five grams of cocaine and carries a minimum prison sentence of five years. 

Photo: Robyn Collinson

The sharp drop in young people being criminalized for low-level drug offenses means fewer of them getting locked out of the mainstream economy before they have a chance of joining it, said Moore. “The reduction in so many young people going through the criminal legal system at such a pivotal time in their lives means that many more will have been able to pursue further education and figure out their future without the obstacle of a criminal record.”

The data also reveals police and prosecutors in New York appear to have turned their back on the draconian felony offense of “selling a controlled substance in or near school grounds.” This offense, which carries a maximum 25 years, was  introduced in many parts of the U.S. in the 2000s based on an urban myth that adult dealers routinely sell drugs to schoolchildren outside the school gates. 

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The number of people arrested for this offense if they were caught selling drugs within 1,000 feet of a school decreased from 1,336 to 126 in the last decade. Last year only nine people were convicted of the offense in New York City. 

Since 2009, there’s been an 86 percent fall in the number of low-level drug convictions that have led to people being locked up in jail or prison, from 15,484 in 2009 to 2,144 in 2019.

Photo: Cathryn Virginia

What’s happening in New York, though, is far from the national picture. While some cities, such as Los Angeles, Seattle, and St. Louis, are also pulling back on low-level drug arrests—and Oregon has decriminalized minor drug possession—the latest FBI national data shows that despite increasing cannabis legalization, drug arrests have stubbornly refused to fall. More people are being arrested for drugs in the U.S. than for any other reason. In 2009 there were 1.6 million drug arrests, which dipped to 1.4 million in 2015 but went back up to 1.5 million in 2019. Many cities still have the stop-and-frisk tactics they adopted from New York more than a decade ago. 

So why has New York City gone rogue on the policing of low-level drug crime?

Photo: Robyn Collinson

There has been a general dip in crime across the city since the 1990s. Yet the drug trade itself has not shrunk. People in New York are not using, buying, and selling drugs any less than they were before. As the DEA outlined in its most recent National Drug Threat Assessment, in New York and across much of America, the markets in opioids, cocaine, meth, and cannabis have seen rapid growth in the last decade.

New York’s drug trade has become less open since the 1980s and 1990s crack epidemic. Mobile phones mean street dealers and buyers are less exposed than they used to be. They can now operate more easily behind closed doors and don’t need to hang around on street corners for sales. But the big drop in drug arrests in the city has not been driven by changes in the city’s drug scene. 

“It shows the NYPD can massively reduce drug arrests and the sky does not fall in.”

Instead, the decision to curtail the mass arresting and jailing of non-violent drug offenders was a deliberate move by the authorities in response to prolonged pressure from activists and outraged New Yorkers—in particular from the communities most impacted by them. 

In the mid-1990s, crime reform groups joined with neighborhood leaders to demand the repeal of the brutal Rockefeller Drug Laws, which had led to record numbers of people—mainly young Black men from the city’s poorest zones—being locked up in New York’s prisons. Enacted in 1973 in the wake of President Richard Nixon’s war on drugs and named after New York’s then-governor, the laws made selling two ounces or possessing four ounces of any drug a felony offense with a sentence of 15 years to life. 

Photo: Robyn Collinson

The “Drop the Rock” campaign was set up “to organize people in the communities hardest hit by the city’s drug war to demand change,” according to Judith Greene, director of crime-reform think tank Justice Strategies. By highlighting that taxpayers were spending more on incarceration than on education, it also mobilized broad support among students and in the faith community, said Greene. And it worked. A statewide poll of voters in 1999 indicated that there was little public support for arrest and incarceration of people for drug crimes. “The critical issue here is that the public was way ahead of their elected officials,” Green said. “But the NYPD, along with most of the city’s DAs and court officials, continue to move, slowly yet steadily, toward the public’s understanding: that if drug use is problematic, it is a matter best addressed through appropriate health care.”

By the time the Rockefeller laws were repealed, in 2009, significantly reducing the harsh punishments handed out to drug offenders, public pressure meant that drug arrests had already started to fall. But the repeal acted as a starting gun for reform. 

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The next piece of drug war weaponry to fall was the blunderbuss of mass stop-and-frisk. For the NYPD, stop-and-frisk had become an all-consuming habit, but others saw it as a cynical way of picking the low-hanging fruit of the drug trade to hit police quotas. 

Despite its inherent racial bias as a police tactic, prolific stop and frisk did help tackle —alongside other clampdowns and the use of data-driven policing – the open  drug gang violence that plagued the city in the 1980s and 1990s. Yet by the late 1990s, as the street violence started to fall, pedestrian stops resulting in body searches just kept on spiralling. Instead of guns and crack, officers were mainly picking people up for low-level cannabis offenses, criminalizing tens of thousands of non-violent New Yorkers. Between 2002 and 2012, according to a joint report by the DPA and Marijuana Arrest Research Project, the NYPD made 440,000 arrests for cannabis possession, which took up more than one million hours of police time.  

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Under pressure from civil rights and drug reform groups, and a long-running class action lawsuit, Floyd et al vs. City of New York, in which a judge ruled in 2013 that the way the NYPD used stop and frisk was “unconstitutional” because it amounted to racial profiling, its use nose-dived. From a high of 686,000 pedestrian stops in 2011, by 2018 the number had fallen to 11,000 a year.

Photo: Robyn Collinson

It has also been suggested that the police have made fewer drug arrests because the current opioid crisis is affecting more white people than the crack epidemic did. “Perhaps the whitening of the drug epidemic disincentivized street enforcement,” said Jeffrey Fagan, an expert on policing and crime at Columbia Law School.

Initially, the reduction in street searches, fewer drug arrests, and milder sentencing for drug offenses were met with horror by conservative politicians.

When the Rockefeller repeal was announced, Marty Golden, a Republican New York State senator, echoed the feelings of many in his party when he said the reforms were “the beginning of the end” and would lead to a “public safety disaster” that would “crush our communities.” The New York Post labeled the Rockefeller law reforms a “Drug Dealers Protection Law.” Former President Donald Trump has been a longtime cheerleader of mass stop-and-frisk. 

But backed by Mayor de Blasio, New York has continued to liberalize its approach to the enforcement of low-level drug crime. In 2014, the NYPD began issuing criminal summonses in lieu of arrests for marijuana possession up to 25 grams. Some district attorneys in Brooklyn and Manhattan began declining to prosecute marijuana possession charges. 

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In August 2019, New York State implemented legislation decriminalizing minor marijuana possession, treating possession of up to two ounces as a violation instead of a crime and expunging prior convictions. “For years, conventional wisdom said you could only arrest your way to a safer city,” de Blasio said in January 2019. “Conventional wisdom was wrong. For years, conventional wisdom said you could only imprison your way to a safer city. Wrong again.” 

But the anarchy and the rise in no-go neighborhoods never materialized. The scaling back of low-level drug enforcement has led to a 73 percent fall in the number of people in New York City’s jails for drug offenses, with the city’s average daily jail population declining by a third between 2009 and 2018, giving New York state one of the lowest imprisonment rates in America. 

Yet during this time, homicides have fallen by around a third, from 515 in 2011 to 318 in 2019. Violent crime is down by more than 54 percent since 1996. Shootings have fallen by 39 percent between 2014 and 2018. Even though this year has seen a steep rise in homicides and the prison population in the city, mainly due to social upheaval caused by COVID-19, the city is safer than it’s been for decades. 

Photo: Robyn Collinson

“There has certainly been a less aggressive, more hands-off, anti-zero tolerance approach to policing these past few years by the NYPD,” said Christopher Herrmann, a former crime analyst supervisor with the NYPD. “The fact that we are making fewer arrests, have fewer people in prisons, and still have solid, declining crime trends throughout the last decade shows that this kind of reform can, and should, be done. Tickets instead of arrests, monetary fines and restorative justice instead of mandatory prison—this seems to be a trend that is working in NYC.”

So who should take the credit for New York’s journey away from the old-school drug war? Pressure groups such as the Prison Moratorium Project and Drug Policy Alliance and public opinion have laid the foundations for the city’s mayors and the NYPD to change their tune. Despite initially championing stop-and-frisk during his mayorship, Michael Bloomberg ended up overseeing its reduction, and has since apologized for pushing the tactic, admitting it was “an abuse of police practice.” 

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“In terms of those in power, de Blasio has done well in trying new things,” said Herrmann, now a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice. “I think you can give Bloomberg and de Blasio most of the credit, but the NYPD has also been able to educate and convince officers that change is not always bad and not all drug users and dealers are hardened career criminals.”

However, things are far from perfect. Herrmann believes that part of the fall in arrests is due to a disenchanted police force, hit by budget cuts, a record number of retirements, and cancelled academy classes. “Defund the police movements, decriminalization of marijuana—which is not a good thing for most cops – lots of negative media against the police has led to very low levels of police morale, and low morale certainly impacts police productivity.” 

Photo: Robyn Collinson

And despite the scaling back of drug policing, a report published in September by researchers at John Jay showed drug offenses still count for a large chunk of arrests in the city. But crucially—despite de Blasio’s claim that New York is America’s “fairest city,” young Black men are still being arrested for drug offenses at significantly higher rates than young white men.  

“I am heartened by the decrease in both the use of stop-and-frisk and drug arrests during the de Blasio administration, but I am still very concerned by the severe racial disparities in both of these categories of enforcement activity,” Darius Charney, senior staff attorney at the Center for Constitutional Rights, told VICE News. Charney was lead counsel on the landmark Floyd v. New York case that found the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk practices racially discriminatory and otherwise unconstitutional. 

“There was a lot of fearmongering about the chaos that reform would bring to our streets, but it was wrong then and is still wrong now.”

Charney points to figures showing that despite the general fall in cannabis arrests, 94 percent of all people arrested by the NYPD for marijuana possession in the first six months of last year were Black or Hispanic, even though Black and Hispanic people make up only 52 percent of the city’s population. “So while the NYPD is doing much less marijuana enforcement, they are still targeting their enforcement efforts primarily at young people of color.” 

These disproportionate arrest figures are not just about police bias; they are about structural racism, a reflection of the consequence of embedded social exclusion. Black and Hispanic New Yorkers are twice as likely to live in poverty, or live in near-poverty, as white or Asian New Yorkers, and there’s a harsh reality to the drug business: People who are locked out of the mainstream economy are more likely than others to resort to the drug trade to get by. What’s more, people living in poorer neighborhoods are also more likely to be picked up by police, who target these areas.

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There are still pointless, low-level drug arrests going on in the city. Scott Hechinger, former senior staff attorney and director of policy at Brooklyn Defender Services, which represented nearly half of everyone arrested in Brooklyn, said of the 1,688 drug prosecutions his firm was involved in between July 2018 and July 2019. Many were for low-level street sales involving addicted drug users being trapped into buying small amounts of drugs by undercover police officers. 

WATCH: The Racist Legacy of The War on Drugs

“This is about undercover officers approaching people who are clearly in need of help, engaging them in a drug-related conversation, promising them a hit or a tip if they go and get drugs for them from their own dealer, and after taking the officers' money and going to their own dealer and returning with a bag or two, they get arrested,” said Hechinger.  

“It's one of the most sinister practices. Prosecutors even have a name for them: ‘No cash, no stash’ cases. Meaning no pre-recorded buy money was found, because they gave it all to their dealer, and there was no ‘stash’ because the person only had the amount that was bought with the pre-recorded buy money. In other words, they weren't actual dealers. When measured against the goal that there should be zero of these arrests, the city has much farther to go.” 

Photo: Robyn Collinson

But there’s been some pushback on the city’s hands-off approach to low-level drug offenses from the city’s DEA office. Special agent Ray Donovan, head of the DEA’s New York division, told VICE News he believes it sends the wrong message.   

“Each and every week I get letters from community leaders and citizens begging for the DEA’s help in their neighborhoods because of low-level drug distribution networks taking over street corners and housing projects within communities. 

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“Fear has grown, and so we are getting more and more involved and acting on this information. It’s one thing for drug arrests to drop and another thing to listen to the community, and there may be a disconnect there. Drug arrests are down, but the community is still asking for help.”

While there are still parts of New York, like in most big global cities, where open street dealing occurs, there’s no evidence to show that this has increased as a result of lighter-touch drug policing of low-level drug offenses. It is also the case that very few of the minor drug offenders who have avoided arrest and jailing under the city’s scale-back will be the kind of gang members controlling neighborhood drug markets.

Donovan was also critical of some district attorneys in the city for being too soft on drug dealers, and of new bail law reforms introduced at the start of the year that reduced the number of people jailed while awaiting trial because they couldn’t afford to pay bail. 

“The bail reform law, where people are let out the same day they are arrested, made the job for us a little bit more challenging,” he said. “If I arrest someone with kilos of fentanyl which could kill many people, and the city is going to let them out and do the same thing again and again, I can’t bring a prosecution to that DA office; I have to take it federally, because my role ultimately is to save lives. If I don’t feel a criminal is going to be charged and put through the system, then I’m not going through that DA; I’m going to take it federally.”  

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The DEA in New York has, however, also seen a drop in the number of its own drug arrests, which involve higher-level drug dealers than the NYPD’s arrests. The number of drug supply arrests carried out by the DEA in New York has fallen by 28 percent, from 2,454 in 2009 to 1,758 in 2019. Donovan said this was because drug gangs were increasingly hidden by technology and because of a fall in major cocaine traffickers targeting the city.  

Will New York be used as a lesson for other U.S. and global cities? In London there were 268,769 stop-and-frisk searches last year, compared to 13,459 in New York and double the number of people arrested and convicted for selling drugs.

The fall in these arrests and convictions has undoubtedly saved huge amounts of police time and millions of dollars of public money. According to the Drug Policy Alliance, each cannabis possession arrest eats up two and a half hours of police time and costs $1,500 in police and courts expenses. Incarceration costs an average $45,000 a year. 

These savings haven’t really been passed on to New Yorkers, the experts say.

“The changes in marijuana arrests was going to save the city at least $30 million a year. Unfortunately, there is no real way to show where saved money goes; it’s really more like money not spent,” said Herrmann, the former NYPD analyst. “It’s like measuring crime prevention: How do you measure something that does not actually happen? We would love to hear about stories of reinvestment of that money into drug treatment or more neighborhood-based work, but that is not happening.” 

Despite the scaling back of the drug war, the NYPD’s $11 billion budget for 2020 is up by around 30 percent since 2010. Fagan, the Columbia Law School expert, said any savings made in street policing of drugs would likely be eaten up by overtime and tech investments such as body-worn video and digital surveillance. The decreasinging prison population, however, has resulted in the closure of prisons in New York, with economic development grants given to communities that lost prison jobs as a result.  

Other cities can learn from New York’s example, says Greene, the Justice Strategies director, but they need to set up ways of switching money from policing to helping communities. “More care should be taken to harvest any fiscal savings for reinvestment in those neighborhoods where the harsh burden of drug law enforcement falls most heavily,” she said. 

Photo: Robyn Collinson

Could this progress be reversed if crime figures continue to rise, as they have done due to COVID-19? 

“I do think this innovative trend in making fewer arrests, fewer incarcerations, and bail reforms will continue in NYC,” said Chris Herrmann. “Thankfully, I don't see a crime wave happening here. I think with the new Biden administration coming in, you will also see more money and more focus invested in policing and community issues, which will bear fruit sometime in mid- to late 2022.” 

For Lucy Lang, a prospective candidate for Manhattan District Attorney, stepping away from the old drug-war police tactics is a necessity, because at their core, they are racist. 

“District attorneys have a role in either perpetuating the racial injustice of the war on drugs and the devastating failure of mass incarceration, or eliminating it,” she said. 

“It’s been a long march to the rollback of the ‘tough on crime’ mantra, and there was a lot of fearmongering about the chaos that reform would bring to our streets, but it was wrong then and is still wrong now.”

Tagged:

War on Drugs, New York, NEW YORK CITY, NYPD, stop and frisk, worldnews

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