Two Columbia University researchers question the New York Police Department’s long-running strategy that uses arrests for marijuana possession as a means to “crack down” on gun use and other serious crimes.

Columbia professor and policing expert Jeffery Fagan and co-researcher Amanda Geller argue that the arrests, which chiefly target minorities in low-income neighborhoods, rarely result in reduced crime and may be unconstitutional.

Using data provided by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, the pair analyzed 2.2 million police stops and marijuana arrests in the city between 2004 and 2008. According to the report, titled “Pot as Pretext: Marijuana, Race, and the New Disorder in New York City Street Policing,” they found that less than 4 percent of marijuana stops led to arrests and less than 1 percent unearthed illegal weapons.

The NYPD’s “Order Maintenance Police” program encourages officers to aggressively stop individuals for minor offenses, including marijuana possession, in hopes that the “stop and frisk” approach will produce illegal guns and prevent more serious crimes before they happen.

“Police like to use marijuana as a pretext to crack down on more serious crime, but there’s little evidence to suggest this is an effective strategy,” Fagan concluded in the study.

He said marijuana arrests are on the rise, so the routine stops appear to be an ineffective deterrent.

By 2000, 15 percent of all adult arrests were linked to marijuana possession, and by 2006, the number of marijuana arrests in the city had increased five times since the previous decade.

The study also suggests a racial imbalance in the arrests. According to the report, Blacks are 7.5 times more likely than Whites to be stopped for carrying the drug, while Latinos are 2.75 times more likely to be pulled over than Whites.

The targeting is “dramatically out of proportion to national statistics that suggest comparable usage rates across racial groups or higher rates of marijuana use among Whites,” the authors wrote.

A separate study co-authored by Fagan found that, over a 14-month period in the late 1990s, Blacks and Latinos accounted for 84 percent of all New York street stops, although the minorities represented just half of the city’s population.
“This is not to say the NYPD is racist,” Fagan said. “However, some police tactics appear to be based on perceptions that have no basis in reality.”
“The legal rationales for marijuana enforcement also suggest both a racial skew and a pretextual nature of citizen stops and marijuana arrests,” Geller and Fagan write. “Despite recent litigation requiring police officers to specify the reasons for each stop, we find recurring patterns of stops that lack legal justification under both federal and New York law.”

The study is published in the Journal of Empirical Legal Studies.

Shernay Williams

Special to the AFRO