As the nation's biggest city deals with threats of terrorism and a variety of violent crimes, carrying a little bit of marijuana is still a big deal.
There are more arrests for low-level pot possession in New York City -- about 50,000 a year -- than any other crime, accounting for about one of every seven cases that turn up in criminal courts.
It's a phenomenon that has persisted despite more leniency toward marijuana use -- the state loosened its marijuana-possession laws more than 30 years ago.
Critics say the deluge has been driven in part by the police department's strategy of stopping and frisking people officers say meet crime suspects' descriptions. More than half a million people, mostly black and Hispanic men, were stopped last year -- unfair targets, critics say. About 10 percent of stops result in arrests.
The department says that the strategy's main goal is to take guns off the street and prevent crime, and that the tactic is a lifesaving tool. But critics say officers looking for guns in pockets more often find pot and -- though state law says the drug is supposed to be in open view to warrant an arrest -- lock up the possessor anyway.
In response, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly recently reminded officers they can't make arrests for small amounts of pot in people's pockets or bags -- and can't trigger an arrest by searching people or telling them to empty their pockets.
"No one has showed me any evidence that this is how a large number of arrests are being made," he said. "But the allegation was made."
Kelly said the vast majority of pot arrests come from undercover officers who witness hand-to-hand drug transactions or people smoking pot in public. And, the department says, as low-level arrests have risen, violent crime has decreased dramatically.
But many New Yorkers, mostly black and Hispanic men, say they're being targeted in the name of keeping the city safe. And the arrests can carry a heavy personal cost. An arrest alone can prompt a child-welfare inquiry, jeopardize job licenses and turn up in a background check.
Bronx community organizer Alfredo Carrasquillo, 27, estimated he's been arrested on marijuana possession charges more than 20 times, starting when he was 14 and police ordered him to empty out his pockets outside his high school. He says he was arrested, though a 1977 state law says those with 25 grams of the drug or less in their pockets or bags should only be ticketed. Legally, it's a violation that doesn't result in a criminal record.
Gabriel Sayegh, the New York director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group critical of the national war on drugs, said the department benefits from the arrests.
"Every year, they're bringing 50,000 people into their system," he said. A significant portion of them have not been arrested before, and even if the cases ultimately get dismissed, as most first-time marijuana-possession arrests do, police net names, fingerprints and other information for law-enforcement databases, he said.
New York's lowest-level marijuana-possession charge -- criminal possession of marijuana in the 5th degree, a misdemeanor -- has been the most common arrest charge in the city for much of the past decade, and the numbers have been steadily rising. Last year, there were 50,377 arrests citywide, up from 46,492 in 2009, according to statistics from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services. So far this year there have been 38,359 reported arrests.
Police officials say critics ignore the context of what has been happening in the city as these arrests continue to rise. Overall, they cite significant decreases in murder and major crimes -- the last decade has seen the four lowest annual murder totals since at least 1962.
"Drug use advocates ignored both the very high incidents of violent crime when low-level offenses were enforced far less vigorously than today, and the steep decrease in violence crime that occurred when less serious offenses, like marijuana, were consistently addressed," said Paul Browne, the department's chief spokesman.
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