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Pot Arrests Have Plummeted in New York — But Minorities Are More Likely to Get Busted

Of the 12,530 people arrested for low-level marijuana possession in New York City so far this year, more than 11,000 were black or Hispanic.

by Olivia Becker
Nov 23 2015, 7:24pm

Photo by Chuck Grimmett

There's good news for marijuana enthusiasts for New York, but it comes with a troubling caveat: While the number of low-level weed arrests has plummeted compared to last year, pot busts involving black and Hispanic people have actually gone up.

As of September 30, the most recent data provided to VICE News by New York's Division of Criminal Justice, low-level marijuana arrests by the NYPD were down 44 percent compared to the same period last year. There were 12,530 arrests for fifth-degree criminal possession of marijuana, a class B misdemeanor, down from 22,225 in the first nine months of 2014.

The stats show that petty pot arrests are way down overall, but they also indicate that minorities are being arrested for low-level possession at a higher rate. Of the 22,225 arrests made in the first nine months of 2014, 86 percent — more than 19,000 people — were African-American or Hispanic. That's up to 88 percent so far in 2015. Of the 12,530 people cuffed by the NYPD and other law enforcement agencies in New York City for having a small amount of weed this year, more than 11,000 were black or Hispanic.

Related: Cops Say Marijuana 'Shatter' Is Dangerous — Others Say It Just Gets You Really High

New York Mayor Bill de Blasio made ending incarceration for low-level drug offenses a central issue during his campaign, specifically citing the racial disparities in arrests.

"Low‐level marijuana possession arrests have disastrous consequences for individuals and their families," de Blasio said. "These arrests limit one's ability to qualify for student financial aid and undermine one's ability to find stable housing and good jobs. What's more, recent studies demonstrate clear racial bias in arrests for low‐level possession.... This policy is unjust and wrong."

Last year, the mayor and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton announced that people who were caught with 25 grams would be ticketed instead of arrested.

Watch the VICE News documentary Inside America's Billion-Dollar Weed Business: The Grass Is Greener:

Arrests have since dropped, and the number of tickets for marijuana possession has shot up, according to NYPD records on marijuana possession and sale arrests provided to the New York Post. New York cops are on track to issue about 16,000 tickets by the end of the year, compared with 13,378 of 2014. (The data provided to VICE News includes low-level marijuana possession arrests made by all types law enforcement in New York, including Parks Enforcement, transit cops, and Port Authority police, not just the NYPD.)

Related: How America's Legal Weed Is Changing the Black Market and Influencing Mexican Cartels

Marijuana enforcement also varies widely based on geography. According to the Post's data, the NYPD made only 48 pot arrests and issued 415 tickets in Throggs Neck, a wealthier area in the Bronx. In Kingsland, a lower-income neighborhood less than 10 miles away in the same borough, police made 720 arrests and issued 168 tickets.

Eugene O'Donnell, a professor at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan,told the Post that while finding baggies of pot is no longer a top priority for the NYPD, cops use it to justify searches that can lead to arrests for bigger offenses. "For cops it's not really about marijuana,"O'Donnell. "It's about finding marijuana on the way to finding a gun or more serious narcotics."

Follow Olivia Becker on Twitter: @obecker928 

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