Bloomberg's new pot arrest policy isn't that great

Arrestees won't spend a night in jail, but arrests and the stop-and-frisks that lead to them remain problematic

Published February 15, 2013 6:07PM (EST)

In New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg's State of the City address Thursday, he announced a new policy for marijuana arrests, which will go into effect in the city next month: Individuals arrested for marijuana possession will get desk appearance tickets instead of 24 hours in the central booking jail.

Crucially, this is not an end to marijuana arrests, or the NYPD's controversial stop-and-frisk policies that usually precede them. Nor does Bloomberg's announcement bring New Yorkers closer to legalization.

Harry Levine, professor of sociology at CUNY and longtime researcher into marijuana arrests and policy, noted that based on news reports from Bloomberg's speech, "some readers may conclude that now police will just be giving out tickets. That is not accurate." In an email, Levine detailed exactly what the new policy means for marijuana arrests:

Issuance of a desk appearance ticket involves a full custodial arrest, handcuffs, and a trip to the police station in a squad car, van or wagon.  Sometimes the person is driven around for hours while the officers look for others to arrest.

At the police station the person arrested is fingerprinted, photographed and locked up in the precinct's own holding pens, which may hold scary people arrested for serious crimes.  The person's fingerprints are sent to the state and then to the FBI to be cross checked for arrest warrants, as well as checked for local NYC warrants.

... The person arrested is locked up at the police station for at least two hours and then released with the mandatory court appearance ticket (DAT).

As I noted last year in TruthOut, Bloomberg has previously lent muted support to efforts by Gov. Cuomo to decriminalize the public possession of marijuana. The mayor said such legislation would "certainly end some of the objections" to the police department's racially skewed marijuana arrest practices, which land thousands of young black and Latino men with criminal records every year. However, as Levine has regularly noted, even non-criminal summons (which would be issued for low-level marijuana arrests were Cuomo's efforts to succeed) often turn to criminal charges if high fines go unpaid or court appearances are missed. "The summons system can produce some of the same consequences as the arrest system," Levine told me last year.

Meanwhile, Bloomberg also made it clear Thursday that he did not support full legalization of the drug. As the AP reported, the mayor said on his weekly radio show that he "opposes legalizing marijuana because it's stronger than it used to be ... [and] added that if marijuana were legal, those dealers would just start selling something else, like cocaine." His comments entirely fail to address a key issue noted by legalization advocates: the disproportionate targeting of young black and Latino men in stop-and-frisks which lead to marijuana arrests. "Young whites use marijuana at higher rates than young blacks and Latinos. But in New York City, blacks are arrested (or ticketed) for marijuana at seven times the rate of whites, and Latinos at four times the rate of whites," Levine noted.

So while some may celebrate the news that a marijuana arrest in New York will no longer lead to a night in a cell, the problem of racist police practices is not touched by the new policy. As Levine stressed, "Isn't it time for everyone in the city to be covered by the same marijuana possession policy long enjoyed by middle- and upper-class white New Yorkers: no arrests, no tickets, no fines."

By Natasha Lennard

Natasha Lennard is an assistant news editor at Salon, covering non-electoral politics, general news and rabble-rousing. Follow her on Twitter @natashalennard, email

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Arrests Marijuana Marijuana Legalization Michael Bloomberg New York Nypd Stop-and-frisk