Marijuana Arrests Plummet in NY; Still High for Blacks, Hispanics: Study

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Marijuana possession arrests have dropped in New York City and in upstate New York since their peak in 2011, but African Americans and Hispanics still had higher rates of arrests compared to whites, according to a new report by the Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College.

In an analysis of data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, researchers found that overall marijuana arrests declined sharply from 51,589 in 2011 to 18,241 in 2017.

The decline in drug arrests was likely related to revisions of New York State marijuana laws, the report said.  Beginning in 1977, New York decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, reducing possession of 25 grams of marijuana or less a violation, punishable by a fine for those who violated the law one or two times, and a fine and/or jail for those who violated the law a third time, in three years.

More recently, in December 2018, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio announced his support for legalization of recreational marijuana for adult use, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo said that legalizing and regulating marijuana for adult use would be one of the priorities for his administration during the first 100 days of the 2019 legislative session.

In the last five years, police and prosecutors in New York City, have made further changes to the enforcement of the existing law on misdemeanor marijuana possession.

“These changes are likely to result in a reduced number of arrests as well as convictions in New York City for the latter part of 2018 and for 2019,” they said.

Notably, New York City had lower drug arrest rates than cities in New York’s “upstate” region.

In 2017, possession accounted for 84.6 percent of misdemeanor marijuana arrests in New York, but 91.4 percent of arrests in the upstate region, and 95.9 percent for the rest of the state, the report noted.

However, while the overall number of drug arrests declined from 2011 to 2017, the differences between the arrest rates for marijuana possession for Blacks and Hispanics relative to Whites widened between 1990 to 2017, the report found.

Data showed that blacks were 8.1 times more likely to be arrested in 2017 than their white counterparts.

Significantly, the percentage of blacks arrested for drug charges has increased since 2010.

In 2010, when arrest rates were at their most recent peak,  Blacks were 7.3 times more likely to be arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession.

Also, Hispanics were 3.4 times more likely to be arrested compared to whites in 2010 and five  times more likely in 2017.

The authors said their findings illustrated a need for policymakers to address  the high incarceration rates of people of color.

“These findings, and the data behind them, provide an empirical foundation for important policy conversations underway in New York State about decriminalization and legalization of marijuana, such as how to reduce racial differences in arrest rates,” they said.

New York needs to address the impacts on communities that have historically experienced high rates of enforcement,  and at the same time, “protect young people from the damaging effects that marijuana can have on the developing brain, improve police-community relations and public confidence in the justice system, and balance concerns about community conditions and safety,” they concluded.

The report co-authors include:  Erica Bond, J.D., Cecilia Low-Weiner, M.S., Meredith Patten, Ph.D., Quinn Hood B.A., Olive Lu, M.S., Shannon Tomascak, M.S. & Preeti Chauhan, Ph.D.

A full copy of the report can be found here.

This summary was prepared by TCR senior staff writer Megan Hadley.

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