New York’s city council held an oversight hearing this week on marijuana law enforcement—specifically, on why blacks and Latinos make up the vast majority of arrestees. Councilman Antonio Reynoso, who represents Brooklyn and a slice of Queens, presented his novel vision of how to make up for years of “over-policing of black and brown communities” for marijuana offenses. Addressing Dermot Shea, the NYPD’s chief of crime-control strategies, Reynoso said:

I do believe in the legalization of marijuana. I do think that we have to talk about mandating that more than 50 percent of the licenses that go out for the sale of marijuana be exclusively for MWBEs (minority and women-owned business enterprises), so that we don’t begin to turn it into a white enterprise, and legalize it, and all the benefits go to people that aren’t over-policed and suffering the consequences of being arrested and summonsed for marijuana.

At the moment, prospects for marijuana legalization in New York State are remote, so the councilman’s plans for provision of marijuana distributorships to over-policed communities as a form of reparations are a bit premature. But Reynoso’s basic premise—that a major injustice has been perpetrated on minorities through unfair and disproportionate policing for marijuana offenses—is the standard view among most of his colleagues in elected office in New York City. The premise is deeply flawed, however.

In 2014, Mayor Bill de Blasio announced a new policy for enforcing marijuana laws. “Simple possession” of up to 25 grams of marijuana would no longer result in arrest for a misdemeanor (with exceptions made for suspects with outstanding warrants or lacking identification); instead, the offense would result in a summons to appear in criminal court. “Burning” (smoking) marijuana in public continues to result in arrest: the city arrests about 18,000 people annually for this offense, down from 26,000 in 2013. Opponents of “mass incarceration” still regard those numbers as way too high.

Elected officials and advocates are particularly disturbed that 86 percent of people arrested for marijuana offenses are black and Latino, though these communities represent only 51.4 percent of the city’s population. Council Member Donovan Richards of Queens, chair of the public-safety committee, describes this as a “huge disparity.” Rory Lancman, chair of the courts committee and also of Queens, decries the “grotesque disparities that exist between marijuana enforcement of people of color and white people.” Andy Cohen from the Bronx calls NYPD marijuana enforcement “discriminatory in intent and certainly in effect.” Inez Barron from Brooklyn condemns the NYPD and says that “people in power don’t understand the systemic embedded practices of racism.”

There is a disparity between the city’s demographics and the subset of people arrested for smoking marijuana in public. When examining the commission of other crimes across the city in terms of race, though, one finds similar, if not wider, racial disparities. Based on victim reports, 84.7 percent of rape suspects in 2016 were black or Latino—almost the same percentage of people arrested for marijuana-related misdemeanors. Robbery suspects were 93.4 percent black and Latino. The distribution of misdemeanor-assault suspects, felony-assault suspects, and murder suspects is similar. Shooting suspects are 97.6 percent black and Latino. Considering these figures, it seems unlikely that NYPD racism is a primary cause of marijuana arrests.

City neighborhoods with the most marijuana arrests often tend to be the same ones where most serious crime takes place: seven of the top 15 precincts for misdemeanor-marijuana arrests are also among the most dangerous precincts by rate of major crime. This correlation does not mean that open marijuana use is necessarily connected with the commission of crimes such as murder, felony assault, or grand larceny, but it does indicate that smoking marijuana in public may be more likely to occur in high-crime neighborhoods than in lower-crime areas.

This leads to the main point that the NYPD representatives made throughout the council hearing: arrests for lesser offenses such as burning marijuana are driven by community complaints. Council members had a good laugh at the idea that people spend their time calling the police because they smell marijuana; Debi Rose from Staten Island wondered if people are smoking “extra-long-burning blunts,” making them more likely to be snitched on and caught when the police show up. But as the NYPD’s Shea explained, open marijuana use is often closely connected with other forms of antisocial behavior, such as loitering in apartment lobbies or children’s playgrounds, shooting dice, drinking alcohol, and fighting. Public complaints may get the NYPD to respond to a call that people are gambling on a front stoop; when the cops get there, it’s not unusual to find a lit joint being passed around.

Merely citing statistical disparity in arrest rates for smoking marijuana does not prove racism on the part of the NYPD—especially when that same disparity exists, sometimes in higher proportion, across the spectrum of crime. Elected officials should worry less about which minority group will receive the first post-legalization marijuana business licenses and focus more on minimizing social dysfunction in their communities.

Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images


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