Twenty-two-year-old Shapierce Townsend shares the cold marble steps of the Brooklyn criminal courthouse with a stack of fluorescent yellow fliers. The bold, all-caps message they bear is one he’s lived: “Marijuana arrests are racist, costly, and needlessly introduce us to the prison system.”
The flier doesn’t specify who “us” is—and it doesn’t need to. In 2013, 87 percent of the more than 28,000 marijuana-possession arrests in New York City targeted blacks or Latinos. In the first four months of 2014, under the rule of a mayor who openly opposes racial profiling, the figure was 86 percent. A black person with weed is seven times more likely to get arrested in the empire state than a white one. Anyone who doesn’t believe New York City’s marijuana arrests are fueled by racism is either misinformed or in denial. In all likelihood, both.
On a typical day, Townsend would venture from these marble stairs to the baroque doors of the courthouse, through the metal detectors, and up to the fifth floor. He’d sit and talk with the people who are there involuntarily—most often, they’d tell him stories like his own, about how stop-and-frisk turned into marijuana-possession charges. Today is different. One day earlier, he and other activists from VOCAL—a New York-based advocacy group—got thrown out of court. Now, they’re unsure whether they’ll even get in. A guard “confiscated our flier and brought it to his captain. When he came back, he said ‘Get out,’” says Alfredo Carrasquillo, the group’s leader, who has been doing this for years and is a former victim of the system. When asked what would happen if they didn’t obey, Carrasquillo says the guard replied with a sinister grin: “Oh, you’ll see.”
Many of these marijuana-possession hearings, like the one Townsend went through two years ago, will consist simply of a judge apologizing—saying the defendant shouldn’t have been put in prison, or even arrested in the first place. It's exactly what the judge told Townsend, he says, after he was pinned to a fence by an NYPD car, arrested for a small amount of marijuana, then sent to central bookings where he shared a tiny room full of mice-sized roaches with 50 men and one small toilet. By the time his case reached court, Townsend had lost his job at Duane Reade, the bed at the shelter he was living in, and any hope for a better life. "It messed up my whole head on trying to be motivated and trying to stay focused," he says. I've never been arrested before, that was my first offense."
Based on a 1977 law decriminalizing marijuana in New York, an arrest for possession of 25 grams or less is only warranted if the drug is in plain view. In the vast majority of cases, it isn’t. The judges’ decisions aren’t born of pity—their apologies, on the other hand, are. Yet for many of these men and women, after being illegally felt up, sent to prison, then slapped with a criminal record, “sorry” is too little, too late.
These cases, dismissed or otherwise, leave lasting scars, making it difficult to find another job, secure housing, apply to school, or support a family.
Nationwide, a black person is 3.73 times more likely to get arrested for marijuana, despite the fact that they use at similar or lower rates to whites.
It’s for this reason that Townsend and Carrassquillo dedicate their hours to helping inform those inside about their rights. And why getting ejected has left the two of them speechless—they believed Mayor Bill de Blasio would put an end to out-of-control stop-and-frisk and low-level pot arrests. The only thing worse than a mayor who isn’t keeping his promises is a law enforcement agency that’s stopping him. Enter: the New York City Police Department.
The steady level of arrests, despite claims that the NYPD is doing fewer stop-and-frisks, is a sad indicator of how deep the problem runs and how far De Blasio may be from fixing it. Just over six months ago, things looked very different—on a freezing January day, the newly-inaugurated mayor made good on a campaign promise he’d issued long ago—to stop low-level marijuana possession arrests. “We will reform a broken stop-and-frisk policy to protect the dignity and rights of young men of color,” he bellowed. “We won’t wait. We’ll do it now.”
It was difficult not to believe De Blasio. In earlier speeches, surrounded by his mixed-race family, he’d preached about the “disastrous consequences” of the policy for “individuals and their families: “These arrests limit one’s ability to qualify for student financial aid and undermine one’s ability to find stable housing and good jobs.”
Six months later, the thousands of people whose lives have been ruined by the NYPD’s racism are still waiting. DeBlasio, it seems, is too.
In the past 20 years, more than half a million people in New York have been arrested for marijuana. According to a June report from the Marijuana Arrest Research Project, the NPYD’s primary targets remain black and Latino high school students, college students, and young workers who have no previous criminal record. In 2013, people between the ages of 16 and 34 made up 78 percent of the simple marijuana-possession arrests, a number that jumped to 79 percent in the first four months of 2014. In 2013, 72 percent of those arrested had no prior convictions of any kind. In 2014, that number reached 73 percent.
“The numbers we’re seeing are cause for alarm because the reasonable expectation would be for the arrests to go down dramatically due to the change in leadership,” Gabriel Sayegh, New York State director of the Drug Policy Alliance, told The Daily Beast. “The arrests are not going down—in fact, two out of the four months are higher this year than last.
“There are tens of thousands who stand to be arrested when they shouldn’t be. The police force continues with a practice that’s racially biased and unjust.”
Sayegh suspects that it was a lack of planning, not lack of concern, that has derailed De Blasio’s plans. In late January, the mayor passed legislation to reform the NYPD’s stop-and-frisk policy, which he said had been overused. If the majority of simple marijuana arrests were the result of stop-and-frisk, it was logical to assume those charges would also go down. But according to activists, in the absence of a clear directive to NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton, the plan didn’t work. While stop-and-frisks have gone down dramatically, simple marijuana arrests have not.
“We didn’t see any structured plan to address the issue,” says Sayegh. “Bratton made it clear that he would sustain a focus on low-level quality-of-life crimes...marijuana arrests fit in that category. To the extent that there was an expectation by De Blasio for a drop in arrests, that hasn’t worked, it hasn’t panned out.”
In April, Bratton gave an interview with Capital New York about Brooklyn’s new pot policy. When asked whether he’d been directed not to prosecute first-time offenders for low-level possessions of marijuana, Bratton issued a stern denial. “We’ve had no discussions with the district attorney’s office about new initiatives,” he said. In Sayegh's eyes, Commissioner Bratton is simply perpetuating the methods of former Police Commissioner Ray Kelly. “I don’t think any of us were hoping for a different spokesperson for the same practice. We’re looking for change, and we’re still waiting to see it," Sayegh says.
Meanwhile, national attention has already started to snowball around the issue. In a letter to Commissioner Bratton this May, Congressman Hakeem Jeffries expressed his grave concern for the lack of changes in the NYPD’s policy. Almost a month later, he says, he’s still waiting for a reply. “The NYPD is an institution that’s very difficult to move,” the congressman told The Daily Beast. Jeffries says Bratton has repeatedly expressed his belief that there is no compelling basis for the police department to change. “It’s unacceptable to have a marijuana arrest policy that disproportionately impacts black and Latino when whites use marijuana at higher levels,” he says, referring to a recent study from the American Civil Liberties Union, titled “The War on Marijuana in Black and White.” “Fundamentally, either possession of small quantities of marijuana is legal or its criminal. But it can’t be socially acceptable behavior for one and criminal for another when the dividing line is race,” Jeffries said.
What’s more, the ACLU’s sweeping report uncovers a disturbing reality: The problem is larger than New York. Nationwide, a black person is 3.73 times more likely to get arrested for marijuana, despite the fact that they use at similar or lower rates to whites. Tracking arrests state by state, the study shows marijuana arrests have a “staggeringly disproportionate impact on African-Americans.”
After Townsend and Carrasquillo make it back inside the Brooklyn courthouse—only to learn that the marijuana possession court is closed—they head to a nearby Back-to-Work welfare program. Outside, a group of young African-American friends stand around talking and laughing. Two of them nod when asked if they’ve been arrested for marijuana possession. Their stories echo those of thousands of young blacks and Latinos in the city who have already been arrested, as well as the thousands who are likely to follow if De Blasio doesn’t make changes.
As they talk, one 22-year-old man expresses anger at the inequality surrounding marijuana arrests. “It’s not fair that we’re the only ones that get caught when we carry it. [White] people don’t,” he says. His friend ventures the theory that marijuana, or any drug for that matter, has nothing to do with why the police stop them. They’ll get frisked whether their pockets are empty or full. “Our first offense is the color of our skin,” he says. “Being black, that’s the crime.”
Both the NYPD and Mayor de Blasio declined to comment for this article.
Editor's Note: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that there were only 7,000 arrests for marijuana posession in New York in 2013. In reality, the number is above 28,000.