The NYPD has softened penalties for possessing pot, but law enforcement still hits some people harder than everyone else.
One morning last October, Bill Bratton, the commissioner of the New York Police Department, bumped into a young woman smoking a joint in Lower Manhattan.
"I come up to one side, tap her on the shoulder, and she looked over," Bratton later recalled to a giggly audience at the New York Law School. "And I wish I had a photograph of that face, because she instantly recognized me." The commissioner added that he and a security officer "politely removed the marijuana" and threw it in the sewer.
The goofy anecdote shows how New York City's once-harsh stance toward pot has evolved. Previously defined by what critics called "the marijuana arrest crusade," NYC law enforcement seems to be adopting a softer tone: Even if smoking in public is still illegal, since November 2014, a new era in weed policy has come to New York where Bratton's boys often look to issue a ticket or warning first, instead of cuffing people in droves. As of this month, the same softer approach applies to drinking, pissing, and littering in Manhattan, too.
But exactly what happens to you for possessing pot still depends an awful lot on where you live.
As VICE reported a few days after Bratton's joint story made headlines, weed is basically legal for New Yorkers with white skin—which is to say enforcement varies widely on, for instance, opposite sides of Prospect Park. Out of all New Yorkers arrested for misdemeanor pot possessions from January to September 2015, whites made up 8 percent.
Blacks and Hispanics? 88 percent.
In that sense, Bratton's reaction to a student stoner in the Financial District reflects how people generally get treated in that rich, white area of the city. In 2014, it was one of the neighborhoods with the lowest marijuana arrest rates in New York, according to a study conducted by the Drug Policy Alliance.
That said, while the commissioner and smoker-turned-mayor Bill de Blasio continue to laud the plummeting rates of marijuana arrests in this city, low-income communities of color are still getting arrested in high numbers for weed. Now the changes in policing—or how New Yorkers are treated for the same crime—has created two worlds: one where the commissioner will politely dump out your roach, and another where the boys in blue bag you.
To find out how the system really works, VICE spoke with men of color—who statistics show are targeted most aggressively—from each of the five boroughs about getting hassled for pot in today's New York City.
Before the NYPD recalibrated its pot policy across the city in November 2014, it was Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson who first gestured toward change. "In 2012, over 12,000 people in Brooklyn were arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana, mostly young, black men," he told the crowd at his 2014 inauguration.
The prosecutor swore he would stop going after these low-level offenses, as black men in Brooklyn were nine times more likely than their white counterparts to get busted for bud.
Perhaps no neighborhood's enforcement disparity is more glaring than Brownsville.
The high-crime spot is notorious for police crackdowns, particularly over weed: According to data provided by the NYC Department of Criminal Justice Services, there were 326 arrests for marijuana possession in the 73rd Precinct (Brownsville) last year, 278 of which were for black men.
36-year-old Germaine Windley was one of them.
In June 2015, Windley remembers inviting a man up to his apartment after he repeatedly asked if Windley had weed outside of a bodega down the block. As the two waited for a dealer to arrive, Windley says he sparked up a blunt, and offered it to the man, not knowing he was an undercover NYPD detective. The guy refused, saying he didn't smoke, which sounded suspicious. But Windley didn't pay it any mind.
Later, after the dealer arrived, the undercover officer left with two bags of weed. "I'm talking with my dealer for a little, talking about if I knew the guy," Windley recalls. "I said I met him at the store, and he wanted weed. But before I could've even finish that sentence, cops rushed in my house and arrested me."
As they led Windley out, one officer asked if his heating pack on the stove was drugs—Windley told the cops he had a herniated disc, he says, but they checked anyway. Before heading back to the precinct, he adds, "they drove us around for a while, to see if they could snag anyone else up." Windley was later charged with possession of marijuana with the intent to distribute.
In Brooklyn Criminal Court, a judge dismissed the charges and made Windley and his dealer each pay $120 fines for disorderly conduct. "The judge just said we're gonna pay the fine, dismiss the case, that as long as we pay the fine and stay out of trouble for six months, we should be OK," Windley says.
In Brownsville, where the man still lives, arrests like these are a daily occurrence. Windley scoffs when I mention the city's move from arrests toward summonses: "They don't give out summons. They still arrest them," he says, arguing it's the same at housing projects in Bed-Stuy. The cops are everywhere, he maintains, "hounding people for weed."
Except when he goes to Manhattan. "I walk around there, you don't even see police out there," Windley tells me. "People are smoking blunts in the streets!"
"It's a backwards system, man," he adds, suggesting he lost a sure-thing job offer because of the arrest. "I'm starting to feel like it's gonna hold me back, every job I get now."
Around the same time Commissioner Bratton announced he was easing up on weed citywide, the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance released a study showing the 25th Precinct of Manhattan—a.k.a. East Harlem—had the highest rate of marijuana arrests in the city: a startling 1,128 out of every 100,000 residents. (In East Harlem, 88 percent of residents are black or Hispanic.)
On Thanksgiving of that year, just days after the new policy on ticketing was announced, a young Hispanic college student, who requested anonymity and we'll call "Jamie," was riding down Second Avenue in the 25th precinct. His mother and brother were in the car, which Jamie had recently leased out, he says, and the windows were foggy from the cold. Then red lights flashed.
"The officer said he pulled me over for a broken taillight," Jamie tells me. "Even though I had just bought the car and had it fixed up."
After he opened his window, the officer said he smelled marijuana, and told Jamie, his mother, and his brother to step out of the car, he recalls. His brother began recording the interaction on his phone. According to Jamie, the officers searched the car and his belongings. In Jamie's pockets, the cops found an eighth of weed.
"So I spent Thanksgiving night in jail," Jamie tells me.
In the end, Jamie says he wasn't ticketed for having a broken taillight—instead, he was reprimanded for having marijuana on him and driving while impaired, and ordered to attend a months-long program for chronic smokers. In an act of civil forfeiture, he adds, his car was confiscated, and he was forced to pay $150 for a drug test. (Jamie's case is ongoing, which is why he declines to give his name.)
"I lost my car, I lost family time," he says angrily. "And for what? It was bogus!"
In East Harlem, Jamie insists he sees this all the time: Friends get frisked for pot on the streets, or pulled over in their cars for a different reason, but ultimately are busted for marijuana possession. In the past, Jamie says he's been stopped and frisked on several different occasions; once he flashes his college ID, though, the cops often back off. "They know they're racially profiling then," he explains.
But Jamie's cousins who live in wealthier areas of Queens can smoke blunts on the streets. He's even done that himself on the way to see the Mets play at Citi Field in Flushing. "But once you enter Upper Manhattan, or the Bronx," he says, "it's a whole different ball game."
"My white friends do this same shit, and they get away with it," Jamie continues. "But the minute I get behind the wheel... forget about it."
Nearly a month after the city's new approach to handling marijuana enforcement was announced, Carl Stubbs, 63, was waiting for the bus outside of his friend's apartment building in south Queens when the cops showed up.
"I guess the police were watching the building, or something like that," he tells me. "What the police did was hop out the van and apprehend me. Just started grabbing me, and putting their hands in my pockets."
"At the same time, I'm asking them why they're putting their hands in my pocket," he continues. "They said because I allowed them to put their hands in my pockets. I said, 'Wait a minute, I know my rights, and I didn't allow you to do that.'"
Stubbs says the officers found four small bags of weed in his pockets, and then asked him who he was going to see in the building. He refused to say. That's when, Stubbs claims, the cops did something quite strange: They gave him his pot back. "They were looking for somebody with guns," he tells me. "So they thought I was probably the person."
I ask Stubbs if he's seen weed arrests in Flushing, where he lives, over the past few months.
"It stopped a lot, but it's still out there," he says. "It's still going on in certain neighborhoods. They know who to target, and who not to target. And most of the people who they get, they don't have anything, and they panic."
I then told him that I lived in Queens, too—in Astoria, which is ethnically diverse but predominantly white. If he were walking down the street with me in my neighborhood, I wonder, would he get busted?
He responds tersely.
"If you're black, you're getting stopped."
In April 2012, the Bronx Defenders' Marijuana Arrest Project released a study after surveying 500 people who had been arrested for marijuana-related crimes in the borough over the previous year. The lawyers said that over 40 percent of the arrests presented clear constitutional problems due to unreasonable search and seizures.
For perspective, 2011 saw 50,000 weed arrests citywide, more than all NYC pot arrests between 1978 and 1996 combined. (Stop and frisk also peaked at nearly 700,000 incidents that year.) It was a clear sign of policing overkill often attributed by critics—like then-Public Advocate Bill de Blasio—to Mayor Michael Bloomberg and his police commissioner, Ray Kelly.
Now, nearly five years later, one Bronx native who refuses to give his name says the disparate enforcement lingers in the outer borough.
The 28-year-old subject, whom we'll call Brian, says he and a cousin recently pulled up near an empty building in the Pelham Parkway section of the Bronx, and sparked up a blunt. An hour or so later, the two were sitting in their car, waiting for the high to go down before returning home, when officers rolled up.
"We weren't doing anything crazy," he says. "All of a sudden, the cops ask us, 'What are we doing? Drugs?'" After Brian responded, "no," the cops searched his car without his consent, he says. In the glove compartment, he recalls, cops found a small empty vial that contained a trace amount of weed residue. And outside of the car, the cops found the blunt roach.
"I told them that they had no proof that either was ours," Brian tells me. "But they said they needed to arrest me, to show that they were patrolling the area." The building had been vandalized recently, and they were looking for suspects.
In handcuffs, the police brought Brian—who took the blame, letting his cousin go—back to the 49th Precinct, where he was hit with a desk appearance ticket (DAT)—the modus operandi of the new pot policy in New York. There, Brian claims the cops were openly joking about how the mayor smokes pot in the mayoral residence of Gracie Mansion, a rumor that has been circulated by the boys in blue for some time now.
Outside of Bronx Criminal Court on a recent afternoon, Brian fumes over the costs of a ticket: a $145 fine, and a loss of $200 in wages, since he had to take the second day off from his new job. He says that luckily, the arrest won't be on his record, and he opted to pay cash instead of doing community service.
Still, the experience shook him. He refuses to give his real name even though his legal troubles are over for fear of retribution from the officer who stopped him. He also says he doesn't know where he'd dare smoke now, for fear of getting busted again. His cousins have faced similar situations across the borough.
"It's the Bronx, man," he offers.
There are certain neighborhoods on Staten Island that a man we'll call "Frank" knows not to drive through. In rougher spots like West Brighton, New Brighton, or Port Richmond, the police presence is high, and the chances of getting pulled over even higher.
"If I drive through those neighborhoods," he tells me, "I'm getting illegally searched. And it doesn't matter for what—I just know it's gonna happen, because I'm brown-skinned."
According to Frank, that's exactly what happened one day last December in Port Richmond.
The day after his girlfriend's birthday, he was driving through the neighborhood to see his father. Unbeknownst to Frank, he claims, a friend of theirs had left a few grams of pot in the center console the night before. So when he was pulled over for being on his cell phone—which he denies—cops found the weed almost immediately upon flipping the car.
He had weed on his person—in a sweatshirt pocket—too.
Frank was brought to the 121st Precinct, given a DAT, and released quickly. Normally, a few months later, he'd spend the day sitting in court waiting to pay it off. But this time, there was a slight issue: He was on parole for a 2010 gun charge.
The marijuana possession ticket, as a result, could have dire consequences: "Just for a small nug, you could be back behind bars for a while," Frank says. (His case is ongoing, which is why he's unnamed.)
Compared to the other boroughs, Staten Island might seem quiet. With about 500,000 people on the island—many of them white and middle class—and a large NYPD community, the arrest rates here are not astronomical, especially when stacked up against Brooklyn's population of nearly 2.6 million.
But in 2014, the "forgotten borough" became known as the place where Eric Garner was put in a fatal chokehold by Officer Daniel Pantaleo, an incident that sparked protests locally and nationwide. Before that day in July, when Garner was stopped for allegedly selling illicit cigarettes, he had been arrested over 30 times for low-level offenses.
Frank can relate.
That was not Frank's first marijuana arrest—in fact, he cops to getting busted over a dozen times for marijuana possession. Usually, he says, that involves being pulled over for a broken taillight, talking on his cell phone, or, as he puts, "driving where I shouldn't be."
"They'll always say, 'I can see the weed,' even though they're standing outside the car. Also, who would just have it out?" Frank asks, laughing. "And then, when you're on the curb, watching them search your car, they always follow it up with, 'It's nothing personal.'"
Since City Hall changed its stance on pot policy, Frank says the only difference he's noticed is the end result—arrests are less frequent, but fines are higher. "It saves and makes the cops and courts money, so it's good for them!" he explains. The law, he insists, is great for areas where arrests aren't already a daily occurrence: "It's geared toward not getting those people in trouble."
But for people who look like him in the outer boroughs, not a whole lot has changed.
"This is the norm," he says. "They're gonna search you. They're gonna write whatever they want to write. And there's nothing you can do."
Before we go our separate ways, Frank asks me to come to Staten Island soon, and ride around with him through those search-heavy neighborhoods. He guarantees that if I go alone, I'll be just fine. But together, it's a different story: "If they see me in the front seat, driving, then we must be up to no good."
"Any time you want to do that test," he says, "call me."
Follow John Surico on Twitter.