New York Thinks Decriminalizing Pot Is Easier than Confronting Bloomberg

The Atlantic Wire

In a bit of happy news for a healthy percentage of New Yorkers, the state legislature appears to be on the brink of decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana in New York City. This isn't an effort to curtail crime — it's an (overdue) effort to rein in the NYPD and stop-and-frisk. The data shows why.

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During his State of the City address in February, New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg suggested that marijuana possession would no longer result in the person being jailed overnight. "It's consistent with the law," he said, "it's the right thing to do and it will allow us to target police resources where they’re needed most." It is indeed consistent with the law, as Gothamist notes.

[P]ossession of small amounts of marijuana was decriminalized in New York State in 1977 for 25 grams or less, as long as it's not in public view. But the NYPD, especially under Bloomberg and Giuliani administrations, has widely disregarded this law, and the department's stop-and-frisk policy has been instrumental in driving up the numbers of pot possession arrests.

"Stop-and-frisk" is the name of the New York City Police Department's policy of approaching people on the street and performing a search. Ostensibly, the police officer needs a reason for the stop, but since the necessary reason basically amounts to "he looked suspicious," use of the practice increased dramatically last decade. Here are the stops, broken down by race, from the ACLU.

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That steep decrease in 2012 followed enormous public backlash. Earlier today, a court heard testimony from those stopped under the program as part of a civil-rights lawsuit in a trial that's expected to last for at least a month. Over the course of the past decade, the ACLU estimates that some 90 percent of those stopped have not been charged with any crime.

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The NYPD and Mayor Bloomberg has consistently defended the practice, arguing that it helps reduce crime. And, to be fair, there's a broad correlation between the increased use of stop-and-frisks and a drop in crime. (The crime data is from the NYPD and does not include 2012.)

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To view that another way, here's the relationship between the crime drop and stop-and-frisk increase, year-over-year. If the bar points up, it means that there was an inverse relationship between crime and stop-and-frisks over the year — that crime fell as stop-and-frisks went up, or vice versa. It's the relationship Bloomberg claims, and, in every year but one, it held true.

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But that's all crime. When you isolate misdemeanor drug crimes — which includes simple marijuana possession — the relationship is very different. Both increase together. The more stop-and-frisks, the more drug arrests.

Using the ratio as before, you see that stop-and-frisks only correlated to lower drug crime in three of the nine years — the opposite of crime overall.

And that data includes all stop-and-frisks, not just those that resulted in charges. If you compare drug crimes with stop-and-frisks that resulted in a charge being filed, the relationship was nearly one-to-one in 2010 and 2011.

All of this evidence is correlative, to be fair. But it's striking.

Bloomberg has a number of reasons to want marijuana arrests to go down. For one, such arrests are one of the only growing categories of crime in the city. For another, a new report indicates that the NYPD made 440,000 arrests for simple possession between 2002 and 2012 — taking up 1.1 million hours of police time. Ending marijuana arrests helps in multiple ways.

Nor is it a shock that Bloomberg endorses Governor Andrew Cuomo's decriminalization plan. According to the Journal News, the policy proposed by Cuomo is meant specifically to work around the city's policy.

[A] proposal from Cuomo to reduce the penalty for public possession of small amounts of marijuana from a misdemeanor to a violation has entered the budget negotiations as well, Silver said. Cuomo’s plan is meant as a means to deal with New York City’s “stop and frisk” policy, which critics say unfairly targets young minority residents who are forced by police to empty their pockets.

(The main issue of contention: whether New Yorkers outside the state should get a pass on possession, too.)

It's not the best solution. The problem isn't that so many people have weed and are facing criminal action. The problem is that petty offenses are uncovered by an intrusive, questionable practice. Decriminalizing pot in this case is like taking a shower to avoid a house fire. It'll keep you safe for a bit, but it's not really fixing the problem.

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