When New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani's delicate sensibilities are offended, the citizens of the Big Apple best watch out. It happened again in Midtown Manhattan in November, when the mayor caught a whiff of marijuana smoke on the street as he left a political ceremony.
"I was walking out of the speech that I gave and I smelled marijuana," he told reporters. "I turned around and these guys took off, and my detail couldn't catch them," he added.
Unable to nail the perps, Mayor Giulani extended his wrath to all their compatriots. "You do not get to smoke marijuana. If you do, we're going to arrest you," came the edict.
And so begins the latest version of the crime-fighting mayor's "quality of life" campaign, which has previously targeted the infamous "squeegee men," the homeless, and all manner of minor offenders, from prostitutes and panhandlers to drug users and graffiti artists.
Not that the war wasn't already underway. By the time the mayor smelled smoke in Midtown, his minions had already arrested more than 50,000 marijuana smokers. By the end of November (the latest figures available), that number had climbed to 59,945, including 19 people at a memorial for John Lennon and eight members of an East Village medical marijuana co-op. That's up from 43,122 during the same period last year, a 39% increase.
In 1992, New York police arrested 720 aficionados of the weed.
National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) Executive Director Keith Stroup is outraged. "What he's doing is arresting kids for smoking pot in the park. Giulani's campaign is based on busting as many pot smokers as possible," fumed Stroup. "It's the largest percentage increase in arrests I've ever seen. Incredible."
"You have to remember that New York is actually a state that decriminalized in the mid-1970s, and Giuliani is ignoring the will of the legislature," Stroup told DRCNet. "They didn't intend that the city continue to spend millions of dollars to arrest and lock up marijuana offenders."
Under New York state penal codes, possession of less than 25 grams is a "violation" similar to a traffic offense and punishable only by a maximum $100 fine. Those caught smoking marijuana in public, however, face slightly stiffer penalties of up to three months in jail. In practice, most cases end in dismissals or fines.
But the real punishment is the arrest and jail time -- an average of 21.6 hours citywide -- spent awaiting arraignment.
Robert Gangi of the Correctional Association of New York, a nonprofit advocacy group for more humane criminal justice policies founded in 1844, made that point to DRCNet. "These are offenses for which you cannot get a prison sentence, but part of the quality of life strategy is to have the process of arrest and arraignment be the punishment," he said. "That sends a message to the riff-raff."
NORML's Stroup agreed. "What happens is the charges are dropped," he said, "but Giuliani insists that everyone arrested spends the night in jail. That way he gets his pound of flesh."
Giuliani's vendetta against marijuana is not occurring in a vacuum. It is part and parcel of his quality of life campaigns that have coincided with (but not necessarily caused) dramatic decreases in the crime rate while at the same time provoking increasingly bitter antagonism between minority communities and the police.
The city's Operation Condor, which puts teams of police officers and detectives on sweeps of targeted neighborhoods, has eaten up $75 million in overtime funds this fiscal year, and Giuliani and police officials want $125 million more for next year. Officers on Condor assignments alone made 23,000 arrests last year -- three times as many misdemeanors as felonies -- and issued 57,000 summonses for quality of life violations.
Critics, and they are legion, charge that Operation Condor and the larger quality of life campaign are a thinly veiled effort to keep a lid on "the dangerous classes," in this case, primarily the young, the poor, and the non-white.
Robert Gangi told DRCNet, "We're skeptical about the value of Operation Condor. Although it appears to be politically popular, I have serious questions about whether it has been a major factor in the drop in crime."
"What it has done," Gangi continued, "is lock up thousands of people, mostly people of color, needlessly. It is racially discriminatory in practice and has led to a deteriorating relationship between communities of color and the cops."
"There is both the appearance and the reality of disparate treatment based on race," said Gangi. "We may or may not be reaping crime prevention benefits, but we are definitely sowing the seeds of discontent and antagonism," he concluded.
Gerald Lefcourt, a well-known defense attorney and former head of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers also slammed Condor and its predecessors. "This amounts to 'stop and frisk' searches based on racial profiling, or other characteristics such as youth or appearing disheveled," he told DRCNet. "And it encourages police to look at people of color and young people as potential criminals, not citizens."
"They're not after people in suits and ties," said Lefcourt, "but for everybody else, constitutional protections don't mean a thing. We've got to have protections with some teeth in them."
It isn't just the usual suspects crying foul about New York City's version of the drug war. Only two months ago, a Justice Department investigation of the police department's Street Crimes Unit (the folks who gunned down Amadou Diallo), announced it had found that the unit's officers had engaged in racial profiling. That report came on the heels of one by the state Attorney General, Eliot Spitzer, saying that the city's street search tactics unfairly targeted blacks and Hispanics.
And last week, the perception of racial and class bias got another boost when a black police officers' group accused federal prosecutors of selectively enforcing drug laws by failing to arrest as many as 2,000 "white, affluent" coke-sniffers caught up in a federal investigation.
While city police busied themselves arresting minor offenders by the tens of thousands, federal authorities were investigating a cocaine delivery service. According to reports in the New York Post, they videotaped hundreds of transactions between the service and its clients at Wall Street banks and brokerage houses and other snooty Manhattan locales.
The office of US Attorney Mary Jo White, after obtaining guilty pleas or verdicts from most of the trafficking defendants, declined to prosecute the buyers. Instead, her office is "contemplating stern letters of reprimand" for the hapless yuppies.
That didn't sit well with 100 Blacks in Law Enforcement Who Care (http://members.tripod.com/blacksnlaw/), who called it "a racially based double standard" at a press conference called to lambast the decision.
"We are locking up African-Americans and Hispanics for having drug paraphernalia or even one joint," said the group's leader, Lt. Eric Adams. "We have a policy where we arrest someone for carrying vials of crack, but these people go free."
The National Black Police Association agrees that drug law enforcement is rife with racial disparities, but doesn't think the answer lies in more arrests, according to Executive Director Ronald Hampton, a retired 24-year veteran of the Washington, DC, police force.
"This has nothing to do with quality of life issues," Hampton told DRCNet. "It's always been about race and class. Are they as aggressive on Wall Street or Park Avenue as they are in Harlem or the Bronx?"
Hampton answered his own question. "No, of course not, because they would be offending powerful people. If the police treated those people like they do folks in public housing in Harlem, it would be a public relations disaster."
"Look," he told DRCNet, "we've thought for a long time that drug policy needed to be looked at. It hasn't worked, except to victimize the people on the bottom. What has happened is that police departments use the notion of the war on drugs to victimize people."
Hampton could find plenty of people to buy that argument in New York City these days.