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Racial Disparities in NYC Cannabis Arrests Are Getting Worse

March 6, 2018
This is the first in a three-part Leafly series on cannabis in New York City. Later installments will examine how the city’s prohibition market works, and what reforms need to happen next. 

City Council Members Are Fed Up

Under New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, overall cannabis arrests are down but racial disparities have actually ticked up. (AP Photo/Hans Pennink)

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, cannabis arrests in New York City are significantly down relative to cannabis arrests during the terms of his precedessors, Michael Bloomberg and Rudy Giuliani. But they’re still an order of magnitude higher than cannabis arrests during the 1980s and early 1990s—and the racial disparities in those arrest figures aren’t getting any better. In fact, the disparities in white, black, and hispanic cannabis arrests were worse in 2017 than they were in the previous year.

Under Mayor Bill de Blasio, 85% of the people arrested for cannabis offenses were people of color. Under Michael Bloomberg, that figure was 84%.

How can the rest of the country continue to make progress—decriminalizing in big cities, legalizing in more and more states—while New York City actually goes backwards?

That’s what members of New York’s City Council wanted to know last week. In a joint meeting of the Council’s Committee on Public Safety and Committee on the Justice System, councilmembers questioned leaders of the New York Police Department about racial disparities in the enforcement of the city’s cannabis laws. It was not a congenial affair. Councilmembers repeatedly took the NYPD to task for withholding critically important arrest data, and for the glaring racial disparities in the little data that was offered up for public scrutiny.

Councilmember Donovan Richards, head of the public safety committee, started off the session by airing data on marijuana arrests, per New York City mayor, during their first three years in office:

Mayor Koch – 6,000 arrests, with an average of 2,000 per year

Mayor Dinkins – 3,000 arrests, with an average of 1,000 per year

Mayor Gulliani 18,000 arrests, with an average of 6,000 per year

Mayor Bloomberg 112,000 arrests with an average of 37,000 per year

Mayor Di Blasio 61,000 arrests, with an average of 20,000 per year

Politico’s Brendan Cheney brought out the differences between mayoral administrations in his article last month, which included this telling graphic:


NYC Cannabis Arrests Ticked Up in 2016

The data given to city council members, though, seemed to be oddly constrained. Dermot Shea, the NYPD’s chief of crime control strategies, explained that the data given to the council was comprised of the statistics from within the confines of the following police precincts:

Precinct NumberNeighborhood
25East Harlem
40East Harlem
60Coney Island
34Washington Heights
73Bedford Stuyvesant
5City Hall


Here’s what a gram of cannabis costs in cities around the world

Why Only Those Precincts?

Councilmember Richards’ follow-up question—”What do all these precincts have in common?”—was met with collective, laughter from the public gallery. The unspoken implication was that the precincts are situated mainly in communities of color.

NYPD’s Chief Shea mentioned that regarding arrests, the statistics are derived from the areas are where the NYPD receives the most complaints, via incoming calls to 911 and 311. (311 is a non-emergency number that connects callers to city services, including the police.)

“I’m not saying I don’t trust your word,” Richard then told Shea, “but let’s go through the stats. We’re trying to determine where the calls that are specifically related to marijuana are coming from.”


This One Chart Captures Everything Wrong With NYC Cannabis Arrests

Let’s Look at the Data

According to a survey of city residents, in the past year, 33% of whites, 32% percent of blacks and 27% of Latinos in New York City have acknowledged consuming marijuana.

'Are blacks the only ones using marijuana in New York City?'
Councilmember Donovan Richards

Noting those figures, Councilman Richards, who is black, asked: “Are blacks the only ones using marijuana in New York City? It’s pretty even across the spectrum of marijuana use. So why is so much enforcement happening in communities of color?”

Chief Shea dodged the question. He said that in 2014, the city made a legal differentiation between ‘using marijuana’ and ‘burning marijuana.’ Since then, he said, 90% of arrests for marijuana are for ‘burning.’

That didn’t mollify Richards.

“Communities of color are not the only ones ‘burning,’” he said.

Under Mayor de Blasio, 85% of the people arrested for cannabis offenses were people of color. Under Mayor Bloomberg, that figure was 84%.

“If the administration is serious about changing the racial disparity of arrests,” said Richards, “we are not seeing that.”

Chief Shea defended the NYPD’s arrest statistics. “We are following specific complaints from the public, regarding marijuana burned in public view.”

He added, “We are probably the most transparent we have ever been as a department, as an administration.”

This seemed hard for Council members to believe, because no data was presented by the department to corroborate their claims, despite repeated prior requests for said data to be presented before the hearing.

Again, from Brendan Cheney in Politico last month:


911 Calls: Only in Communities of Color?

Richards was having none of it. “These numbers do not show that we are making progress. Arrests have gone down, but the disparity of where these arrests are occurring, are not transformational.”

'Until you show me the data we requested that shows the correlation between 311 calls, I just cannot accept this justification for this incredible disparity.'
Councilmember Richards

“The department isn’t serious about addressing disparities in communities of color. Many of our young, black, and brown men and women are still getting summonses over marijuana, while other states are legalizing. It is a disgrace.”

“Following up on 911 calls, I refuse to believe in a city of eight million, that the only people calling 911 are in communities of color. You can smell it in City Hall Park on some days. We have to do better. Marijuana should not be a life sentence,” he said.

Richards said he wants to analyze the aforementioned 911 calls and hear the complaints.

Chair of the Committee on Justice System, Councilman Rory Lancman concurred. “Where is the data?” he asked Chief Shea.


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“Grotesque disparities” and missing data

Councilman Lancman voiced his concern that if marijuana enforcement is driven by 311 calls, relying on 311’s extraordinary disparity is troubling.

“We asked the department to produce the 311 data we heard Police Commissioner Bratton talk about, and we did not receive it either before the hearing or at the hearing. We have been asking for it in emails since the middle of February because this is how the department justifies a seemingly unjustifiable disparity. You can’t produce any documentation to support your assertion that the most 311 calls are coming from these communities. Until you show me the data we requested that shows the correlation between 311 calls, I just cannot accept this justification for this incredible disparity.”

'There is no magic button to produce this report. We have 15 different key words to search: pot, weed, etc.'
Dermot Shea, NYPD official, explaining the lack of data

At that point, Lancman called for the hearing not to be concluded, but to be adjourned until the data the NYPD are relying on is provided, “so we can have a real conversation about this extraordinary impact on communities of color,” he said.

Chief Shea concurred. “I agree with everything you just said. We’ve cut almost forty percent of previous arrests. It’s more 911 calls than 311 calls.”

“Either way you have provided us with neither data,” Councilman Rory Lancman retorted.

“Agreed, and no one is more frustrated than me,” said Shea. There is no magic button to produce this report. We have 15 different key words to search: pot, weed, etc. We have seen significant jumps, which coincides with a drop in arrests. I have to be responsive to the woman walking into her building with her kids, having to walk through three people smoking pot or shooting dice or whatever it is. We have to balance out cutting arrests with overall public safety. The data is far from perfect. If you ask three different people, you will get three different interpretations, and none will be wrong,” Chief Shea explained.

Just Responding to Complaints

It is highly doubtful that police officers would compile their arrests reports using any slang terms for cannabis, but the council let that excuse pass, in favor of interrogating the top brass along racial lines.

Councilman Rory Lancman, “So if the data is shaky, where is the disparity coming from?”

Again, this line of direct questioning was sidestepped. “We are trying to revolutionize how we police New York City with our build a block meetings. We are responding to complaints that are coming to us.”

Councilman Rory Lancman persisted, “Any other factors involved?  Have you considered that there may be bias in the NYPD?”

Chief Shea was evasive once more. “We went to great lengths in 2014 when we revised our policies. We created different ways to process possession and burning versus smoking. It’s not a license to smoke outside though.  Deployment issues come into effect. Who smokes it outside? I don’t have racial data. When we deploy officers, if they’re smoking outside, we enforce existing law.”


Oregon Sees Consumption Rise, Arrests Plummet

More Lenient in White Neighborhoods

“Are you confident that officers patrolling white neighborhoods are enforcing the law with same vigor and zeal as in communities of color? Are white neighborhoods a little more forgiving in looking the other way, or issuing a warning?” Councilman Rory Lancman asked.

Councilman Anton concurred. “I want to see how many people in a gentrified community are being arrested.”

Chief Shea said he had no data to support that or reason to believe that.

“221-10 marijuana arrests are not going to Rikers Island. There could be other factors, existing warrants, etc. Someone smoking a marijuana cigarette is not going to see a sentence. We are in lock step with prosecutors about that.  Nearly nine out of 10 arrests are for smoking or burning outside. The perpetrators may be wanted for other crimes; they may not have ID on them. There are other factors. That is why we created this differentiation in 2014.” Chief Shea said.

‘No Position’ on Legalization

When asked specifically out of the 17,500 arrests in 2017, how many had mitigating factors, such as possession of a handgun, Chief Shea admitted,  “I don’t have the data, but it’s not going to be an ancillary charge. It will be the top charge.”

Council member Donovan Richards asked, “Are you aware of the task force appointed to analyze legalization?”

NYPD’s Chief Shea of Crime Control Strategies, “Yes. I do not have a position on legalization of marijuana. We will continue to enforce the laws that are on the books. We feel sorry for people who say, ‘This is the fifth time I have called, this is the tenth time I have called, why is the NYPD not addressing my concern?'”


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There’s a Time Issue Here

Councilwoman Rose was also highly skeptical of the Chief’s remarks. “I have a hard time believing that calls to 311 are driving the arrests. Nobody is getting summonses for public burning. They are getting arrested for public burning. By the time your officers arrive on the scene, unless someone is smoking an extra long burning blunt, how will you get there in time to find the person who was smoking?”

Councilwoman Rose, who represents an area of Staten Island, then zeroed in on her turf, “I guess we aren’t smoking marijuana in Staten Island because I didn’t hear any stats. Are the arrests disproportionately in the North Shore of Staten Island, in the confines of the 120 or 121 precincts?” she asked.

Chief Shea replied that in Staten Island, in 2016, there were 53 arrests within the confines of precinct 121, five arrests within the confines of precinct 122, and 57 arrests within the confines of precinct 123.

There is a pattern of collecting data from communities of color, rather than affluent or gentrified neighborhoods in Staten Island.

Woman Raped in NYPD Custody

Councilman Richards tried to manterrupt Councilwoman Rose more than once. However, as one of the few women in the meeting, she insisted on getting her points across. She was the only council member to address what many attendees expected to be a focal point of the meeting: the rape of a woman in NYPD custody, who had been arrested on marijuana possession charges.

“A woman was raped and violated in the custody of NYPD [after being arrested for possession of marijuana]. Resolution 177 was proposed to include in the penal law 130.05, that individuals in police custody are categorically incapable of giving consent,” she said.


California Is Still Arresting Too Many People of Color for Cannabis

“That’s Not True, for the Record”

Although the topic of racial disparity was raised by every council member in attendance, the exchange between Councilmember Jumane Williams and Chief Shea became particularly heated.

When Chief Shea stated, “I believe NYC police officers enforce the law impartially,” Councilman Williams replied, “That’s not true, for the record.”

When Councilmember Richards asked if someone could become a police officer if they have smoked marijuana in the past, Chief Shea replied, “Yes you absolutely can.”

Many of the remarks were met with outright laughter, such as when Chief Shea said there is no expectation of productivity goals or arrest quotas.

Near the end of the hearing, Councilmember Anton summarized, “In 10 years we will look back on this conversation and laugh, because New York will be a legalized state.”

Coming tomorrow: A look at how New York City’s cannabis consumers obtain their products in the nation’s largest prohibition market.

Series photo (top): Ben185/iStock

3 part series

  • So,nothing has changed…..shocker.

  • FlunkedAgain

    In NYC Companies that test for drugs may be looking for “abuse”, not use. Bring in big bucks and you can be a toker.

    I was exempt from Drug Testing when I was working as a consultant on a major project at a well know company.

    There was a street in mid-town Manhattan that was an open air MJ market.

    NYC enforcement was based on Class, not necessarily race. Business people weren’t likely to be arrested.

  • David Dancyger

    One issue is personal responsibility. I spend a fair amount of time on the upper west side of Manhattan where folks don’t walk around the streets smoking a lot of dope. Of course you smell it as you pass an open apartment window, or as some jerk drives by, but it isn’t so blatant. Head to some less affluent neighborhoods where you will find more people of color and you’ll find too many young brothers who don’t give a fuck, and that’s just dumb. It makes a happy hunting ground for the police. Something the police can do without too. This is New York City and the cops could be better used not chasing idiots getting high in the open. The statistics about the busts under various mayors do indicate that Di Blasio is concerned about too many busts. Still, at the same time the very low numbers from both the Koch and Dinkens administrations kind of forget what a nasty shithole NYC was back then. I’m not negating racism or profiling. That happens, but on the whole the NYPD is the best in the world, and I’m sure they’d rather not be busting some clown for sparking up on the sidewalk, but it is their job.

    • Jeffrey Avery

      but,,,,,you can’t completely condemn their behaviour, with all the racism that has been going on,through out their life and generations before.people of color have a deep disdain for is rooted deep in the core of our brothers and sisters of’s all about freedom,and sinse many don’t have a voice or the power to change anything,people take that little bit of defiance as tiny victories against,what they feel to be an unjust,don’t be so quick to call anyone an idiote.cops could be cooler… is not only, in how the problem is perceived,but also ,it is how the matter is addressed… i said-the cops could be a lot cooler…

      • David Dancyger

        Jeffery, I think to deny racism is to be racist. Nor would I deny the history of Black people here in America. While that certainly explains a mistrust of the system, still burning a fatty on the street makes you an idiot. I don’t care at color you are. It may feel like a tiny victory, but I imagine that at the moment hitting your wife feels like a tiny victory.

        • Jeffrey Avery

          what in the hell are you talking about,,we’re not talking about stupid or violent behaviour,,,i’m talking about when the cops come in without warrents(which they do)and a young man of any color-once in the system,has very little chance of escaping it…..i’ve had crap planted on me once,,i know how the crooked game works–that’s there side trying to recrute you,because you know certain people,….i’m sure if i were not white,their lil’ game mighta worked…..please try to stay on topic…there’s an AA meeting tonight somewhere near you…….

          • David Dancyger

            Jeff, You suggest staying on topic, but that about the only thing that you haven’t done. What I suggested was that too many young brothers spark up in public and then get popped. You can shroud the issue with as many defenses (most of which I agree with) as you like, but it still doesn’t negate personal responsibility.

          • Jeffrey Avery

            just trying to spark a larger debate,,,of coarse i agree with you,but,i read the same comments over and over…when i see one that irratates me ,i give a lil’ jab to spark conversation—-but in your case,i hear a bit of intellegence in your writing…so,i poked ya,a lil’,to see what happens….i do this all the time…sorry we couldn’t get a good ol’ pissin’ match goin’still enjoyed it..i think we actually think too much alike,to have a fun debate,,,but i’m always willing to listen…..feel free to comment me again…i’ll just sign off now ,with a “”you win””

          • Jeffrey Avery

            GOD bless those who blaze trail thru the darkness,so others might see the light…….just an old arkey,desert storm vet,who is sick ….this helps me keep my brain sharp(lively banter with you young folk)thanks…………..peace out

          • Jeffrey Avery

            remember…the answer to bad speach,or hate speach,isn’t less speach,IT IS MORE SPEACH….keep talkin’ it’s your first amendment right for a reason…nothin’ personal towards anyone…just love the back and forth/intelligently though,as above….i hate to say it,but the dumb asses are a bit more fun–you either get them goin’ to the extreem, or ya shuttem’ down,right off the bat….thanks again,,,,,david d.

          • Jeffrey Avery

            you win…….read below please

      • Mike the bike

        you can tell a racist when they say “my people” “our people” “brother” “sister”.

    • Jeffrey Avery

      i understand but,this is all the young people know—blame the broken school system ,blame the parents and blame bad cops/corrupt system,,,,and even place blame on the individual if it fits,,,,but it would be more productive to talk about how we got to this point,so to maybe find a viable sollution,,,there’s plenty of blame to go around,,,but,i can remember my rebellous days,just seems,that because we had less power and the establishment had absolute power—we were a bit more clever at getting away with things,,….it’s not that i disagree with anything you say,it’s that i try to see all sides,and i try to expand the conversation…we/i, to many times,see the same quick thought comment,no matter how true,over and over…i love guys like you ,who challenge me after they have been challenged(((great debate ,by the way)))i believe what you say is true…so,lets sift out all the trueths,on all the sides….MAYBE WITH DISCUSSIONS LIKE THIS AND AND MANY OTHERS ,MAY ONE DAY INLIGHTEN THE WORLD(forgive spelling please,i never could spell well)…thanks again for a great debate…….you win

  • Mike the bike

    The article is no reflection of the real world. If you walk down the middle of the street tokin your going to get caught. Negros like to walk in the middle of the street. its a challenge thing from Africa. check Ferguson mo and Michel brown walkin big down the middle of the street.