NYC Drug Policy: ‘Weeding Out’ Blacks and Latinos

A new study by a sociologist confirms what many of us have suspected for a long time, that drug policies which criminalize marijuana use are ‘weeding out’ blacks and latinos in New York City. The study, by Queens College sociologist Harry G. Levin and Deborah Peterson Small, an attorney and advocate for drug policy reform, is called “Marijuana Arrest Crusade” (opens .pdf), and was released yesterday by the New York Civil Liberties Union, which says:

“The NYPD arrested and jailed nearly 400,000 people for possessing small amounts of marijuana between 1997 and 2007, a tenfold increase in marijuana arrests over the previous decade and a figure marked by startling racial and gender disparities…”

And, indeed, those disparities are striking, as this graph illustrates. The study, based on data from the NY State Division of Criminal Justice Services showed that between 1997 and 2007, 52 percent of the suspects were black, 31 percent Hispanic and only 15 percent white.

As I’ve mentioned here before, for about five years I directed a large (N=565) study of young guys leaving incarceration at Rikers, and a huge proportion of these young men had been arrested on marijuana charges. The fact is, these arrests don’t make the city any safer and only serve to make sure it is the same people who are locked up at Rikers. And, the bias in the arrest process is part of the problem, according to an article on this study in the Village Voice, in which Levine asserts that:

“… most of those who’ve been busted ‘were actually not guilty of what they were charged with.’ Levine says that …[based on interviews with]… Legal Aid and defense attorneys, that two-thirds to three-quarters of the people arrested ‘are not smoking in public,’ but instead had marijuana in a pocket, purse, or backpack. Possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana is a non-criminal violation—not even a misdemeanor—and the cops used to just issue tickets for it. But the arrests cited in Levine’s study were all made for having marijuana ‘burning or open to public view,’ a misdemeanor charge meant to dissuade open lawlessness.

The Voice article goes on to describe the kinds of police tactics that result in these sorts of disproportionate arrests, and these amount to dirty tricks. For instance, according to Levine, the cop tells the person being detained, “Show me what’s in your pocket and I’ll go easy on you,” or may simply order in a loud voice: “Let’s see what’s in your pockets.” When the person pulls out the marijuana, it now becomes the misdemeanor offense of “open to public view.”

This is no coincidence, of course. The racial disparities in arrests for marijuana are skewed less by individual bigotry of individual cops (although that makes it an easier more seamless process), but rather a “racially biased, discriminatory, unfair, and unjust” systematic focus within the NYPD on black and latino young men. And it is young men, the study also reveals that about 91% of the total 400,000 arrested were male. The Voice article goes on to point out the obvious here, but it’s worth stating the obvious sometimes:

Statistically, there are just as many young white people walking around the Upper West Side neighborhoods near Columbia University with pot in their pockets as there are blacks holding marijuana a few blocks away in Harlem. But Harlem has one of the highest marijuana-arrest rates, while the Upper West Side has one of the lowest. That’s because more city cops are assigned to “high-crime” areas, most of which are disproportionately black or Latino, Levine says. The cops are then pushed to meet Kelly’s “productivity goals,” which the police union’s lawyers contend in pending lawsuits are actually “illegal quotas” for arrests and stop-and-frisks.

So, what are the consequences for these young men who are arrested for marijuana, sometimes as young as 14 or 15? Often, they are locked in adolescent wings within adult facilities (as were the guys in our research project), they are then “in the system” meaning that they now have an arrest record. Once they have an arrest record, they are more likely to get arrested again if caught in one of the stop-and-frisk sweeps, and they are less likely to finish school. Indeed, at most public schools in New York City, once a young person has been arrested they are also no longer welcome to attend classes. When they are released from Rikers, they are taken by bus to Queens Plaza (a bleak little spot) and dropped off at 3am with a MetroCard and little else. It’s little wonder then, that the likelihood of re-arrest for these guys once they’re “in the system” is around 65%. It’s a structure that makes any other outcome for young black and latino men other than arrest unlikely….except for the outcome in the Sean Bell case. The undercover operation that all those detectives were involved in at the Kahlua Club? A routine, buy-and-bust drug operation.


  1. Seattle in Texas

    (hehe, can’t resist…LEGALIZE!) And! for those who are aware of the following quote, remember: “I inhaled, that was the point.” (In this language, it would be decriminalize) 😀 I’m an open advocate of legalizing or decriminalizing, whatever language people are most comfortable with. Channel the resources elsewhere and fight racism in the process–works for me.

  2. GDAWG

    Well because of the decline of crack usage, and sells, in the hood, therefoe less imantes, and, as a result, now, excess prison bed capacity, and because prisons, for de-industrialized NYS upstate communities, where, these communities depend on these types of prison related jobs, and because the prospect of closure of some upstate prisons (4) in NYS, and the subsequent loss of many prison jobs by the local citizenry, and tax subsidies based on the inmate population in the upstate region in NYS for example, and the need to marginalized via criminal records as many Black men that you can; with all of this layering, who’s shocked at the arrest rate for pot?
    ‘They’ have to find some way of filling those beds and saving those jobs and tax subsidies, while at the same slow the advancement of brothas.

  3. Jessie Author

    Yes, Seattle, decriminalization certainly makes sense, especially in terms of marijuana, but it’s hard to see how that is going to happen without a sea change in the climate on several levels.

    And, even then, as GDAWG points out, there’s now a structure in place that must be fed. The key is dismantling that structure.

  4. Seattle in Texas

    I know, it’s very sad. Will this occur in our lifetimes? I cannot say. But I do know there are people out there who have been, and are resisting and trying.

    But in the meantime, if U.S. is going to continue investing so much money into the “criminal justice system” I would like to see the funds that are reserved for criminalizing and penalizing victimless acts (especially pot related!!!) directed towards white collar crime and people who are found to have addiction problems with other substances sent to rehab rather than prison. Well, this could go on forever…but this society is so incredibly irrational…and deliberately so, so the structures of racism and other inequalities will remain in place…*sigh*…but I do agree with both of you….

  5. Indeed, at most public schools in New York City, once a young person has been arrested they are also no longer welcome to attend classes. When they are released from Rikers, they are taken by bus to Queens Plaza (a bleak little spot) and dropped off at 3am with a MetroCard and little else.

    Can you provide proof of this? I am not from NYC, and I have never heard of this type of thing. I’m not saying that I don’t believe, but if I were to present this to others, I would need some data to back me up.

  6. Jessie Author

    Hi Alston ~ Good to see you here. Yes, there’s lots of data to back up this claim. I’ll give you a few sources, but if you want more, you can search for “re-entry juvenile incarceration high school” and get lots more. First, there is evidence from my own research working in this area for 7+ years now. For example, in a face-to-face interview with one young man locked up at Rikers, I asked him about his experience with schooling and he said that he was “let go” from high school, because he was “behind in math credits” (from being locked up) and the teacher didn’t think he could catch up to grade level, so she recommended he drop out. This young man’s experience is typical of the kind of tracking out of the educational system that young, black and brown men receive in our educational system. The NYC public school system has a 50% graduation rate (usually framed as a “drop-out” rate), which disproportionately affects young men of color.

    Next, there’s the Empire State Coalition that provides evidence of the connection between youth incarceration, educational failure and homelessness. From their web page on “Incarcerated Youth” :

    Youth with a history of incarceration are often judged to be undesirable to the school system, and have difficulty re-enrolling.

    The young people who have been incarcerated are often expelled to “protect” the other children enrolled. It’s an easy decision for most school administrators who are pressed by “No Child Left Behind” legislation that demands they meet certain performance standards via standardized testing. Kids who are behind (because they’ve been locked up) hurt those numbers. And, note, too, at the bottom of that page, under recommendations the reference to how people are released from Rikers (a further recipe for disaster):

    Change the time of release for inmates from Rikers, or open a 24-hour service center in Queens Plaza.

    For a number of years, I’ve worked with an organization here in NYC called “Friends of Island Academy.” “Island Academy’ is actually the high school (administered by the NYC Dept. of Education) within the adolescent wing of Rikers Island. Friends of Island Academy is a non-profit designed to help formerly incarcerated youth complete their education, mainly through getting their GED. Also, you might want to check out the documentary film, “Rikers High,” (available through Showtime and Netflix) about the school at Rikers – some of the staff on the program I directed are in the background of that film.

    And, there’s evidence that this is not a problem that’s unique to NYC, but in fact, is a result of the national push to treat adolescents as adults when they come into contact with the criminal justice system. For example, there’s this research and there are initiatives like this one in Kentucky that try to develop transitional educational programs, similar to what Friends of Island Academy is doing.

    So, again ~ yes it’s a problem and there’s lots of evidence that it exists nationwide. Usually, if this even makes the mainstream news, the people who’ve had any contact with the criminal justice system are so thoroughly demonized that the narrative is one of their “failure” in school. But, if the graduation rate is only 50% and young men who’ve been locked up for minor infractions like pot or turnstile jumping (illegal entering the subway system, which costs $2.oo) because they are no “behind on their credits” are being “let go” because they have no hope of catching up, who’s failing whom? In my view, it’s the educational and criminal justice systems that are failing our young people, not the other way around.

  7. adia

    Alston: Though she does not speak specifically to NY public schools, you might also read Ann Arnett Ferguson’s (2003) excellent ethnographic study “Bad Boys: Public Schools and the Making of Black Masculinity.” Ferguson brilliantly documents the institutional policies that channel Black boys into the “punishment” track in public schools that too often predates their tracking into the criminal justice system.


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