Here’s the good news: In 2015, cannabis arrests in New York City plunged to their lowest levels in 20 years. Police in the five boroughs recorded 16,590 arrests last year, down from more than 26,000 in 2014, and down significantly from the 50,000 arrests tallied in 2011.
The bad news: Police made 16,590 arrests even after New York Mayor Bill De Blasio’s November 2014 announcement that city police would de-prioritize cannabis and treat possession of less than 25 grams with a summons, not arrest.
The worse news: Even as arrest figures dropped, racial disparities show no sign of going away. In 2015, black or African-American New Yorkers were eight times as likely to be arrested for cannabis as white New Yorkers. That’s twice the national arrest disparity, as calculated by the ACLU in a 2013 report.
Black and African-American New Yorkers make up about 23 percent of the city’s population but accounted for 50 percent of cannabis arrests in 2015. Thirty-three percent of the city is white, but white people accounted for only 8 percent of cannabis arrests.
“Seventeen thousand is a lot of people; the numbers are still very high,” Kassandra Frederique, director of the New York policy office at the Drug Policy Alliance, told Leafly. The DPA obtained the arrest data earlier this week from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.
“It’s incredible to see how far we’ve come in a few years. But it’s very sobering to know that we have a lot more to do.”
The racial disparities in the arrest data are especially troubling. This is the second report in the past month that showed a dramatic decline in arrests but no improvement in closing the gap in racial differences. Last month a report on cannabis in Oregon found that possession charges dropped by more than half between 2011 and 2014, but black or African-American Oregonians remained 2.3 times more likely than whites to be arrested on cannabis charges. Between 2011 and 2014, that disparity had not changed.
In announcing his November 2014 policy change, De Blasio promised the new attitude toward cannabis “will certainly be good for New Yorkers of color, and particularly young people of color.”
That’s true in terms of overall numbers. Arrests continue to decline. But “the arrests are still racially biased,” said DPA’s Frederique. “That’s why it’s so important for marijuana reform to be comprehensive. De-prioritizing marijuana doesn’t automatically translate into de-criminalizing young people of color.”
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