By Councilmembers Adrienne Adams, Rory Lancman, Daneek Miller and Donovan Richards
Last month, a front page New York Times story about the city’s marijuana possession enforcement set off alarm bells.
Its headline: “Surest Way to Face Marijuana Charges in New York: Be Black or Hispanic.”
The city’s longstanding unequal and unjust marijuana enforcement was well-known and well-documented by news outlets including The Daily News, Politico New York, WNYC and organizations like The Drug Policy Alliance and Legal Aid Society. Over the last two years, more than 85 percent of the individuals arrested for low-level marijuana possession were black or Latino, even though studies have consistently shown that blacks and whites use marijuana at nearly the same rate.
Behind those numbers are New Yorkers whose lives were upended by marijuana arrests and convictions — being fired from jobs, denied housing, disqualified from college financial aid, or even facing deportation.
In response to the vast racial disparities, the NYPD claimed for years that its marijuana enforcement was driven by community complaints to 311 and 911. That explanation did not hold water with the City Council. Earlier this year, the Council pressed the NYPD to back up its enforcement claim by publicly providing the 311 and 911 call information.
The data elicited by the City Council completely undermined the NYPD’s claim once and for all. Just look here in Queens. As the New York Times detailed, the 105th Precinct, which covers Queens Village, and the 112th precinct, which covers Forest Hills, received community complaints at roughly the same rate. However, the arrest rate in the Queens Village precinct — whose residents are a majority black — was 10 times the rate of the Forest Hills precinct, which is overwhelmingly white.
The 105th Precinct also has led the city in marijuana summonses nearly every year for over a decade now — 2,199 of them were issued in that command last year.
All told, the New York Times analysis found that in the past three years, blacks citywide were arrested for low-level marijuana possession at eight times the rate of whites, and Latinos at five times the rate. The NYPD even reported to the Council that 36 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession had no prior arrests, entering them into a justice system that they will be attached to forever.
Marijuana enforcement has become the new stop, question, and frisk. These policies serve no public safety purpose, yet provide law enforcement with the opportunity to search and arrest individuals of color.
What the NYPD data brought into focus for policymakers and law enforcement alike is that the status quo is no longer acceptable. Already, the mayor and police commissioner have convened a 30-day working group to review the NYPD marijuana enforcement policies. The Manhattan and Brooklyn district attorneys have announced new policies to curtail the prosecution of marijuana possession cases.
These efforts are an important start that could yield lasting results. As Council members, we look forward to reviewing the recommendations from the NYPD’s working group and the new policies from the district attorneys’ offices, including, hopefully, one from our own Queens District Attorney.
But the NYPD’s recommendations cannot, and will not, be the last word on this issue. The question of ‘where do we go from here?’ can only be answered with community engagement and discussion. For too long, minority communities have borne the brunt of marijuana enforcement, and we all need to come together to start an honest dialogue, rebuild trust, and move forward.
On Wednesday, June 6, we will be co-hosting a southeast Queens Town Hall discussion on marijuana reform at the Robert Ross Family Life Center in Jamaica. The town hall will be a constructive conversation focused on solutions that balance personal and public safety concerns with changing attitudes towards marijuana. We have invited a range of experts and stakeholders to take part in the discussion, including the mayor’s office, local police precincts, The Legal Aid Society, The Grand Council of Guardians, and Drug Policy Alliance.
We encourage everyone to attend the town hall and to bring your questions, comments, and concerns. The weeks and months ahead will determine how marijuana enforcement will change in New York City, and our community, and our borough, must have its voice heard in the process.
Councilwoman Adrienne Adams
Councilman Rory Lancman
Councilman I. Daneek Miller
Councilman Donovan Richards