Bloomberg's Reefer Madness Costs $75 Million a Year

In 2010 New York City spent $75 million arresting people for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

Three members of the New York City Council joined advocates and community members on the steps of City Hall today at a press conference organized by the Drug Policy Alliance and the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives. They announced the release of a new report: "$75 Million A Year - The Cost of New York City's Marijuana Arrests."

The report, written by CUNY Professor Harry Levine and attorney Loren Siegel, shows that since 1996 New York City has spent from half a billion to over a billion dollars arresting people for less than an ounce of marijuana.

Each arrest costs at least $1,000 to $2,000 (conservatively estimated), and in 2010 the NYPD made nearly 1,000 arrests a week. The 50,383 people arrested for marijuana in 2010 were all fingerprinted, photographed, and most spent 24 hours or more in jail. In all cases, marijuana possession was the highest charge or the only charge.

Most people arrested for marijuana possession in New York were not smoking it at the time of their arrest. The police find most of the marijuana they confiscate through their controversial "stop and frisk" practices. In 2010, the NYPD made 600,000 recorded "stop and frisks," and many additional unrecorded stops. The Center for Constitutional Rights and the New York Civil Liberties Union have sued the NYPD about its racially-biased stop and frisks. Although young whites smoke marijuana at higher rates than blacks and Latinos, in NYC Latinos are arrested at four times the rate of whites, and blacks are arrested at seven times the rate of whites.

Public defenders find that two-thirds to three-quarters of those arrested for marijuana had it in their pockets or possessions. Police coerce people into showing their marijuana with suggestions of forgiveness and good treatment. When people take a bit of marijuana out of their pockets as requested or ordered, they find themselves arrested and booked. In African American neighborhoods like Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, where I live, the police routinely and unlawfully search young peoples' pockets without permission.

Mayor Bloomberg has famously admitted to smoking marijuana and enjoying it. Yet on Bloomberg's watch the police have arrested more people for possessing marijuana than the last three mayors combined. Since Bloomberg was elected in 2002, the NYPD has arrested 350,000 people for possessing less than 7/8 of an ounce of marijuana at a cost to taxpayers of $500 million to $1 billion or more.

Everyone arrested gets their information permanently entered into criminal databases that can be easily found on the internet by employers, landlords, banks, credit agencies, licensing boards, and schools. Marijuana possession may be treated as minor by the courts - people are usually given a year's probation - but people can be evicted from public housing, denied financial aid for college, deported, and even lose custody of their children because they were carrying marijuana in their pockets in a neighborhood where stop and frisks are common.

The NYPD arrests 50,000 people a year to confiscate 50,000 joints or small bags and spends $75 million to do it. It seems fair to say that Michael Bloomberg has created his very own Reefer Madness.