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The Two Faces of Enforcing New York’s Marijuana Laws

Although the New York legislature decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 1977, marijuana possession is still the top reason for arrests in New York City and one of the foremost reasons for arrest statewide. According to statistics released by the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services, New York City police officers have arrested 20 percent more people in the first quarter of 2011 than the same period in 2010 for marijuana possession.

Across the state, police made 14,000 arrests for possession of marijuana, 13,000 of which were in New York City. If police continue at the current rate, they will have made approximately 60,000 arrests for marijuana possession by the end of 2011 – the highest on amount on record. The reason police continue to arrest people for marijuana possession – despite decriminalization – lies in the law’s distinction between public and private possession.

Marijuana Law in New York

Possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana is a civil offense in New York, similar to a traffic ticket, as long as the marijuana is concealed. The first violation results in a citation and a $100 fine; for the second offense the fine increases to $200. A third infraction is a misdemeanor offense, punishable by five days in jail and a fine of up to $250. Possession of 25 grams to two ounces of marijuana is a class B misdemeanor punishable by up to three months in jail and a $500 fine.

Public possession of any amount of marijuana also is a class B misdemeanor. Thus, if there is a small amount of the drug in a person’s pocket when frisked by a police officer, it may result in a ticket and a fine. If the drug is in a person’s hand it may result in jail time.

Discriminatory Enforcement of the Law and Questionable Police Tactics

The 1977 law change was supposed to decriminalize possession of marijuana for personal use. However, evidence suggests police exploit the loophole that remains in the law – the differentiation between private and public possession – to arrest young minorities. Across the state 84 percent of arrests for public marijuana possessions are of blacks and Latinos, despite the fact that studies indicate greater marijuana use among whites. Seventy percent of people arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana are young – 16 to 29 years old.

Many who are arrested for marijuana possession allege that police falsely charged them with public possession. They claim the marijuana they had on them leading to their arrest was hidden and the police only found it after searching them – meaning that the possession was never truly “public.” Additionally, arrestees report that police used threats to get them to reveal the marijuana that they had.

NYPD spokesperson Paul Browne denies any discriminatory enforcement of the law or overcharging of marijuana suspects. He argues marijuana possession arrests are a by-product of the energetic police tactics in high crime neighborhoods, which many believe are the reason that violent crime in New York City is at an historic low.

Costs to Taxpayers and Individuals

Arrests for possession of marijuana have costs for both the individual and society as a whole. Each arrest costs the tax payers about $1,500-$2,000, which means in 2010 New York taxpayers spent $75-$108 million on arresting people for marijuana possession.

Prosecutors end up dismissing many of the charges for public possession because of police overcharging or the search itself being illegal – the former head of the ACLU, Ira Glasser, has publically questioned the constitutionality of the typical New York police “stop and frisk” that escalates into a full-fledged search. One Bronx prosecutor reported dismissing as many as 10 to 15 cases per day for reasons such as police reports stating that officers discovered the marijuana in the suspect’s sock or pocket.

Marijuana possession charges do not always get dismissed, however, and about 5,000 people in 2010 ended up with misdemeanors on their records. Having such a misdemeanor can have a serious impact on a person’s life: it affects a student’s eligibility for federal student loans and grants and it means having to answer “yes” to the question often appearing on job applications asking if the applicant has ever been convicted of a crime.

New York Legislators Respond

New York legislators are acting to eliminate what many consider a waste of public resources in arresting people for small amounts of marijuana possession. The state legislature is considering a bill that would eliminate the different penalties for public and private possession of small amounts of marijuana: both would result in a citation and a fine. Multiple violations would still lead to jail time. The bill had bi-partisan sponsorship when it was introduced and numerous co-sponsors have signed on since then. An Assembly committee approved the bill, sending it to the whole Assembly for vote.

Given the serious penalties, arrests for and charges of marijuana possession can have a destructive impact on a person’s life. If you are facing marijuana possession charges, do not hesitate to contact an experienced criminal defense attorney to discuss the details of your situation and the options that you have.