Reefer madness: Pot still popular, as arrests soar
Even as surveys show half of American adults have used marijuana, and a similar percentage want it legalized, arrests for the drug are soaring, particularly in New York City.
And despite the recession, pot is as popular as ever.
“I’ve never seen any decline in demand for marijuana in bad economic times,” Ed Shemelaya, of the national Office of National Drug Control Policy, told the Associated Press. “People always seem to find money somewhere to buy drugs.”
In the city, more adults have been arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession during the administration of Mayor Michael Bloomberg – who has admitted smoking pot in the past, and enjoying it – than under any mayor for the past 30 years, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice. Critics say the numbers do not indicate a surge in usage but a crackdown by law enforcement.
“There’s a kind of schizophrenia going on with marijuana policy,” said Tony Newman, a spokesman for the Drug Policy Alliance, which pushes for legalization. “There’s all these people questioning our policies on the one hand and there’s still record numbers of marijuana arrests.”
The city actually began stepping up its marijuana arrests during Mayor Rudy Giuliani’s second term.
Since 2002, when Bloomberg took office, 255,381 people have been arrested for misdemeanor possession, compared with 198,476 during the Giuliani administration. From 1978 - the year after the state loosened its marijuana laws – to 1997, the year Giuliani was re-elected, there was a total of 75,160 arrests.
A spokesman for Bloomberg declined to comment. Giuliani could not be reached.
NYPD spokesman Paul Browne, said those numbers are misleading. Citations for small amounts of marijuana – under 26 grams (just short of an ounce) is akin to a parking ticket – have actually gone down in the last decade, according to NYPD stats.
Critics counter that a provision in the 1977 law that allows those with less than 26 grams to be charged with a misdemeanor if the pot is being smoked or is in “public view” gives cops a loophole: During a “stop and frisk,” police can ask a suspect to empty his pockets and then charge him with having the drug in plain view.
“Either you’d have to believe there is this an epidemic of smoking marijuana in public or there has been a great number of stop and frisks and the department has made it a policy,” said Harry Levine, a law professor at Queens College who authored a recent report on marijuana arrests.
Browne called that theory “bogus.”
Many New Yorkers say the cops should focus on other crimes.
“Who are they hurting? There’s enough more serious problems and issues we could devote our time and money to,” said Kevin Gaudin, 47, of Jackson Heights.
But City Councilman Peter Vallone (D-Astoria), who chairs the public safety committee, said cops were catching bigger fish by going after pot possession.
“By enforcing quality of life crimes, you keep down the more violent type crimes,” he said.
Robert Levin contributed to this story