In a report released Tuesday, the Drug Policy Alliance charged that New York City's unwritten policy of mass arrests of pot smokers -- overwhelmingly young and minority -- is costing the city $75 million a year. The report, bluntly titled $75 Million a Year: The Cost of New York City's Marijuana Arrests, was co-authored by City University of New York professor and marijuana arrest expert Harry Levine.
The NYPD is arresting about a thousand pot smokers a week and has busted more than 350,000 of them during Mayor Michael Bloomberg's tenure in office. This is the same Mayor Bloomberg who once said he smoked marijuana and like it.
Bloomberg's and the NYPD's mass arrest policies cost the city big bucks in a time of economic difficulty. With Levine and his co-author Loren Siegel estimating the cost of arresting and prosecuting each pot possession offender at between $1,000 and $2,000, New York City has spent somewhere between $350 million and $700 million to persecute pot people since Bloomberg has been in office.
"More people have been arrested for marijuana possession under Mayor Bloomberg than under Mayors Koch, Dinkins, and Guiliani combined," said Levine at a City Hall news conference Tuesday. "These arrests are wildly expensive, do not improve public safety, and create permanent criminal records which seriously damage the life chances of the young people targeted and jailed," Levine said.
"Upwards of $75 million have been used to arrest NYC residents for marijuana possession that could have legally been handled with a summons and not a criminal offense," said City Council Member Jumaane Willimas. "This, as we are debating closing our senior centers. In addition, 86% of those arrests are young children of more color. I don't believe that this represents the percentage of people who take the occasional 'pull.' It does however better reflect the communities abused by the current stop and frisk policies. Had this been 86% of our young children of a lighter shade, there would be uproar. I believe there still should be. All of our children are gifts to be nurtured; yet we are losing them to the system at an alarming rate. There must be a better way to deal with drugs in New York City. These arrests are simply about boosting arrest numbers and aren't the answer to our problems," said Williams.
"It is clear that the NYPD's current policy of giving high arrest priority to marijuana enforcement is fiscally wasteful, and has a greater impact on low-income communities where the 'war-on-drugs' has been primarily focused," said Council Member Letitia James. "Although African-Americans only constitute 13% of national of drug users, they make up 38% of those arrested for drug offenses, and 59% of those convicted of drug offenses. It is fair to say that the high priority given to marijuana enforcement directly relates to racial profiling in New York."
"The consequences of an arrest are severe, especially for young people of color who are already disproportionately arrested and incarcerated in juvenile facilities," said Kyung Ji Rhee, Director of the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives. "Young people of color are targeted, illegally searched and being put through the criminal justice system for possessing or smoking marijuana. Whatever your opinion may be on marijuana, this is no way to treat or teach young people about the choices they make."
"It is beyond hypocritical for the Mayor, who once said he smoked marijuana and enjoyed it, to make arresting young people of color for marijuana possession his top law enforcement priority," said Gabriel Sayegh, New York State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "While cutting services for seniors, youth, housing, transportation, teachers, education, and more, the Mayor spent S75 million last year to arrest over 50,000 people for marijuana possession -- which isn’t even a crime under NY State law. It's just outrageous."
Will Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD see the light? Not without some political heat -- stay tuned.