People of Color Are Still Disproportionately Targeted for Cannabis Arrests in New York, Despite Legalization on the Horizon

Data on marijuana-related arrests in New York during the first quarter of 2021 shows that people of color are still arrested at an alarmingly higher rate than white people.
People of Color Still Disproportionately Targeted for Cannabis Arrests in New York, Despite Legalization on the Horizon

New York legalized marijuana this year but the NYPD continued to make pot-related arrests, according to fresh data released this month.

The figures show that police in America’s largest city made 163 marijuana arrests in the first quarter of 2021 across the five boroughs, with the overwhelming majority involving people of color. Seventy-eight of those arrests involved black individuals, with 70 involving Hispanics. Only six of those arrested for marijuana were white. This is problematic, considering that the rate of marijuana use between Black and white individuals is relatively equal, according to a report by the ACLU.

The newly released data also found that there were 3,687 summonses issued by the NYPD for possession of marijuana in the first quarter of the year, with 2,374 involving Black individuals and 1,089 involving Hispanics.

Those numbers are roughly in line with the figures from the first quarter of 2020, when the NYPD made 132 arrests and 3,623 summonses for pot-related possession. The arrest totals are, however, a steep dip from the first quarter of 2019, when there were 606 pot-related arrests.

Still, the latest figures will dismay advocates, who have been celebrating the arrival of legalization in the Empire State.

Recreational Pot is Coming to New York

In March, New York officially legalized recreational marijuana use for adults after years of failed efforts.

The reform was a major priority this year for New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who after signing the legalization bill into law called it ““a historic day in New York—one that rights the wrongs of the past by putting an end to harsh prison sentences, embraces an industry that will grow the Empire State’s economy, and prioritizes marginalized communities so those that have suffered the most will be the first to reap the benefits.”

“This was one of my top priorities in this year’s State of the State agenda, and I’m proud these comprehensive reforms address and balance the social equity, safety and economic impacts of legal adult-use cannabis. I thank both the Leader and the Speaker, and the tireless advocacy of so many for helping make today’s historic day possible,” Cuomo said at the time.

In 2019, Cuomo signed legislation decriminalizing marijuana, saying at the time that “[c]ommunities of color have been disproportionately impacted by laws governing marijuana for far too long, and today we are ending this injustice once and for all.”

Moreover, in 2018, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio directed the NYPD to issue summonses for individuals caught smoking weed in public rather than make an arrest.

The legalization law signed by Cuomo in March yielded some immediate effects, too. Most notably, it made smoking pot permissible wherever smoking tobacco is also allowed. The governor’s office said it also creates “automatic expungement or resentencing for anyone with a previous marijuana conviction that would now be legal under the law and provides necessary funding.”

The timing of the latest arrest and summons figures is also notable given the recent action by a judge in New York City.

Earlier this month, the Supervising Judge of Bronx Criminal Court granted a motion from the district attorney in the Bronx to dismiss more than 6,000 misdemeanor possession or sale of marijuana.

The judge overseeing the decision, George A. Grasso, alluded to the recent legislative reforms as motivating the decision.

“Our Criminal Justice System has responded swiftly to the actions and intent of the New York State Legislature with respect to over 6,000 pending and closed matters relating to Marijuana charges,” Grasso said. “This means that thousands of individuals (many who are young people of color) can now go about their business without being under the cloud of a criminal matter. I take pride in our Court’s continuing partnership with the Office of the District Attorney and the Defense Bar in our efforts to effect fair and impartial justice in Bronx County!”

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