The New York Times: Examining Marijuana Arrests

The New York State Legislature showed good sense when it exempted people convicted of low-level marijuana possession from having to submit DNA to the state database, unless they have been convicted of a previous crime. Still, the state must do more to curb the arrests of tens of thousands of people each year in New York City for minor possession of marijuana, despite a 1977 state law that decriminalized it.

State data show that the New York Police Department arrested more than 50,000 people last year for low-level possession, with about 30 percent having no prior arrest record. More than 11,700 of those arrested were 16- to 19-year-olds; nearly half had never been arrested before and 94 percent had no prior convictions.

Under the 1977 law, possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana is a violation, subject to a $100 fine for the first offense. But possession of any amount that is in public view is a misdemeanor punishable by up to three months in jail and a $500 fine. Civil rights lawyers say that many of those stopped by city police were arrested after officers told them to empty their pockets, which brought the small amount of drugs into view.

The Bronx Defenders, a public defender agency in that borough, reported last week that it had examined the cases of 518 people arrested for low-level possession in 2011 and concluded that 40 percent of them were unlawfully arrested or charged.

Marijuana arrests declined after passage of the 1977 law, but that changed in the 1990s. Between 1997 and 2010, the city arrested 525,000 people for low-level, public-view possession, according to a legislative finding. Lawmakers and civil rights lawyers are rightly outraged that more than 80 percent of those arrested in the city are black and Latino, despite substantial data showing that whites are more likely to use the drug. Bills pending in both the Senate and the Assembly could help reduce the inequity in the law by making public possession of a small amount a violation instead of a misdemeanor.

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