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MARIJUANA ARRESTS Gateway into the Criminal Justice System

Since 1977 and the passage of the Marijuana Reform Act, under New York State Law, carrying a small amount of marijuana in a pocket, backpack, or purse has been a violation (like a traffic violation), not a crime.

marijuana convictions new yorkNonetheless, in the 15 years from 1996 to 2010, the New York Police Department made 536,320 lowest level marijuana possession arrests under NY State Law 221.10. In the previous 15 years, from 1981 to 1995, the New York Police Department made only 33,770 of these arrests. The number of marijuana arrests from 1996 to 2010 is nearly 16 times the number of arrests in the previous period.1

In recent years, the number of marijuana possession arrests has grown ever larger. The arrests have nearly doubled since 2005, and in 2010 reached 50,383. Preliminary data from the first quarter of 2011 show that this year the NYPD is on track to make an even higher number of possession arrests.

In 2010, nearly 55,000 people were arrested for lowest-level marijuana possession in New York State and over 50,000 of those arrests were in New York City. Because of this historic increase in the number of arrests, it is appropriate to call this a marijuana arrest epidemic, and to describe what the NYPD has been doing as engaging in a marijuana arrest crusade.

These marijuana possession arrests cost the taxpayers of New York a great deal of money. These arrests, jailings, and prosecutions currently cost $1,500 to $2,000 or more per arrest. In recent years this amounts to $75 million or more a year. In 2010, when the NYPD made over 50,000 of these low-level marijuana arrests, New York City likely spent upwards of $100 million dollars arresting mainly young people, overwhelmingly blacks and Latinos, simply for possessing small amounts of marijuana. In the last 15 years, New York City has likely spent over a billion dollars making these arrests.

The marijuana possession arrests constitute an enormous drain on the resources of the police, courts, jails, prosecutors, legal aid services, and public defender attorneys. More people are now arrested for lowest-level marijuana possession than for any other single crime in New York City. In 2010, one out of every seven arrests in all of New York City was for marijuana possession. The arrests target young people. In 2010, 23 percent of the 50,300 people arrested for lowest-level marijuana possession were teenagers; 56 percent were under 25 years of age; and 68 percent were under 30 years of age.

The arrests target people who have never been convicted or even arrested before. Of the 50,300 people arrested in 2010, 30 percent had never been arrested before; another 40 percent had never been convicted of or plead guilty to anything, not even a misdemeanor. Mostly the charges were dismissed or dropped. In other words, 70 percent of the people arrested had never been convicted of any crime whatsoever. Another 11 percent had a previous conviction for a misdemeanor. Only 19 percent of the people arrested for marijuana possession had been previously convicted of a felony, mostly a low-level felony for nonviolent drug offenses such as selling small amounts of marijuana.

The youngest people, the majority of those arrested for marijuana, are the least likely to have criminal convictions. In 2010, 46 percent of the teenagers (ages 16 to 19) arrested for marijuana possession had never been arrested before for anything. Another 48 percent of the teenagers had never been convicted of even one misdemeanor. In 2010, 32 percent of the young people aged 20 to 24 had never been arrested before for anything, and another 45 percent had never been convicted of even one misdemeanor. The arrests are not capturing career criminals; they are ensnaring young people, overwhelmingly without any criminal convictions. For many of the young people, this is their first arrest.

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