Drug arrests by NYPD have skyrocketed.
The NYPD during an operation. Creative Commons

More than 50,000 people were arrested last year in New York City for possessing small amounts of marijuana , according to the New York Division of Criminal Justice Services.

Those 50,383 arrests represented 15 percent of all arrests by the New York Police Department (NYPD)

On average, nearly 140 people are arrested every day for marijuana possession in New York City, making it the Marijuana Arrest Capital of the World, said the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA).

The 50,000-plus figure is more marijuana arrests in one year than the number of similar arrests made by the New York Police Department (NYPD) over the entire period from 1978 to 1996, according to an analysis for the alliance done by Harry Levine, a sociology professor at Queens College.

DPA said that this dramatic rise in marijuana arrests is not the result of increased marijuana use, which peaked nationally around 1980 according to data collected by the U.S. government.

“Over the last twenty years, NYPD has quietly made arrests for marijuana their top enforcement priority, without public acknowledgement or debate,” DPA stated. “This is the sixth year in a row with an increase in marijuana possession arrests.”

Since 2005, the number of pot-related arrests have jumped by 69 percent in the city. Moreover, since Michael Bloomberg came into office in 2002, there have been a total of 350,000 arrests for low-level marijuana offenses in the city.

New York has made more marijuana arrests under Bloomberg than any mayor in New York City history, said Dr. Levine. Bloomberg's police have arrested more people for marijuana than Mayors Koch, Dinkins, and Giuliani combined. These arrests cost tens of millions of dollars every year, and introduce tens of thousands of young people into our broken criminal justice system.

Almost 70 percent of those arrested are younger than 30 years old, DPA noted, while a whopping 86 percent of those arrested are Black or Latino, even though research consistently shows that young whites use marijuana at higher rates.

The NYPD and Mayor Bloomberg are waging a war on young Blacks and Latinos in New York, said Kyung Ji Rhee, Director of the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reforms and Alternatives. These 50,000 arrests for small amounts of marijuana can have devastating consequences for New Yorkers and their families, including: permanent criminal records, loss of financial aid, possible loss of child custody, loss of public housing and a host of other collateral damage. It's not a coincidence that the neighborhoods with high marijuana arrests are the same neighborhoods with high stop-and-frisks and high juvenile arrests.

Ironically, in 1977, marijuana possession was decriminalized in New York under the Marijuana Reform Act of 1977. The state legislature declared that arrests, criminal prosecutions and criminal penalties are inappropriate for people who possess small quantities of [marijuana] for personal use.

Possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana was decriminalized – i.e., it was made a violation, with the first offense facing a maximum penalty of a $100 fine, but no arrest or jail.

Gabriel Sayegh, New York State Director for the DPA, stated that the NYPD's marijuana enforcement practices are racially [biased], unjust, and costly. The Mayor can end these arrests immediately by simply ordering Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and the NYPD to follow the legislative intent of the 1977 decriminalization law. What the Legislature found in 1977 holds true today: arrests for small amounts of marijuana are inappropriate and wasteful.