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Weed Is Basically Legal in New York City Now, but Only If You're White

Arrest and summons data suggest where you live in the city has a lot to do with how likely you are to get hassled by cops for weed.
Photo via Flickr user Aurelien Guichard

This article was originally published on VICE US.

Each passing week sees a new front open up in the battle to stop arresting people for weed. On Wednesday, insurgent Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders expressed support for legalization, a position that's also on the agenda of Justin Trudeau's Liberal Party, which prevailed in Canada this past Monday. Virgin's Richard Branson, meanwhile, recently made headlines by leaking a document indicating there is now a robust debate within the United Nations over the decriminalization of all drugs.


The debate has also been playing out on the streets of New York City, where despite a recent shift towards decriminalization, police reform activists are raising fresh questions about disparities when it comes to pot and the law.

Last November, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton announced that the NYPD would move away from marijuana arrests and instead issue more summonses, which are similar to traffic tickets but require an appearance in court.

And it's making a difference: So far in 2015, according to state data, pot arrests have declined by over 40 percent, and likely will total between 14,000 and 16,000 for the year. Summonses are up by 25 percent and on pace to reach nearly 17,000 by the end of December. All told, the combined number of punitive interactions—arrests plus summonses—is on track to decline by about 25 percent from 2014.

"The de Blasio administration definitely deserves credit for making good on its promise that there would be fewer arrests," says Alyssa Aguilera, political director of VOCAL-NY, which advocates for drug law reform. "But the patterns of enforcement remain exactly the same."

To illustrate that point, VICE compared four NYPD precincts in Manhattan and Brooklyn. In the mostly Latino 23rd Precinct (East Harlem) as well as the mostly black 71st Precinct (Crown Heights–Lefferts Gardens), historically high arrest numbers have dipped, replaced by a growing number of summonses. In both precincts, the combined number of punitive interactions is on track to be nearly the same between 2014 and 2015, with roughly 500 in the 23rd and about 700 in the 71st.


Meanwhile, in the mostly white 24th (Upper West Side) and 78th (Park Slope) precincts, much lower arrest numbers have given way to a comparatively small, but rising number of summonses. The two-year total of interactions in the 24th projects to remain around 150, and while there's been an uptick in the 78th, that will only amount to about 130 encounters this year.

In other words, you're three times more likely to get busted for marijuana on one side of Central Park than the other, and in Brooklyn, it's significantly safer to possess pot in Prospect Park (the 78th) than across the street from it, on Ocean Avenue in Prospect–Lefferts Gardens (the 71st).

As is the case with many other areas of low-level misdemeanor enforcement (a.k.a. broken windows policing), marijuana violations continue to be handled differently according to neighborhood demographics. And in this case, the problem is even more glaring, given that whites smoke marijuana at greater rates than any other group.

"Marijuana is de facto legal for white people in New York City," says Queens College professor Harry Levine, perhaps the city's leading marijuana law scholar. And in his view, all neighborhoods should experience "the same level of respectful policing as the Upper West Side or Park Slope."

While violations that result in a summons are not considered a crime, they do come with significant collateral consequences. Recipients must appear in a court in downtown Manhattan on a scheduled date—they can't just put a check in the mail. That means taking off from school or work or having to make special childcare or other domestic arrangements. The ticket itself comes with a fine of $100 [€90] for first offense and $250 [€225] for a second offense, plus additional court costs tacked on of another $120 [€108]. That's serious money for people living in places like East Harlem and Lefferts Gardens, where poverty rates far exceed the national average.


People who miss their court date, as is common, usually have a warrant issued for their arrest. Currently there are 1.2 million outstanding arrest warrants in New York City. This means that you can be collared at any time you have an interaction with the police, even if it's simply to report a crime. Those pinched on such warrants typically spend 24 hours in jail and court for what was originally a non-criminal offense. And unscheduled arrests can result in the loss of a job, childcare emergencies, and social stigma and embarrassment.

There is a groundswell of support for marijuana legalization on the City Council, including from Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito (whose district includes the 23rd Precinct). But as Elizabeth Glazer, director of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, recently told a council hearing, "Decriminalizing marijuana entirely… is not something this administration supports."

Most critics see Bratton, not de Blasio, as the driving force behind the city's current marijuana policy. At a recent talk, Bratton insisted—contrary to scientific studies—that marijuana remains a "gateway drug."

Bratton also relayed an anecdote about how earlier that week, he had encountered a college student smoking pot in Lower Manhattan, but rather than issue a summons or order her arrest, he put out the joint. Along with a growing number of local elected officials, VOCAL-NY supports Colorado-style legalization, but in the meantime, Aguilera says, "Bratton's action that day essentially should be NYPD policy: Tell people to put it out and move on."

Theodore Hamm is chair of journalism and new media studies at St. Joseph's College in Clinton Hill, Brooklyn. Alex S. Vitale is associate professor of sociology at Brooklyn College.