NEW YORK - Walking down Eighth Avenue a few weeks ago, I made sure my backpack was fully zipped shut. Inside was a modest stash of pot, bought just an hour or so earlier. A friend knew someone in that world, and after an introduction, then a quiet, discreet meeting, I was on my way to the subway.
Never before had I walked through Midtown Manhattan with it on my person. There were four cookies in vacuum-sealed pouches — “edibles” is the technical term — and then a few pinches of what was described as “herb.”
The innovations of Michael R. Bloomberg as mayor are legion, but his enforcement of marijuana laws has broken all records. More people have been arrested for marijuana possession than any other crime on the books. From 2002 through 2012, 442,000 people were charged with misdemeanors for openly displaying or burning 25 grams or less of pot.
I wasn’t sure about the weight of my stash — although a digital scale was used in the transaction, I didn’t see the display — but it didn’t feel too heavy Still, I wasn’t about to openly display or burn it.
IT turns out that there was little to fret over. While scores of people are arrested on these charges every day in New York, the laws apparently don’t apply to middle-aged white guys. Or at least they aren’t enforced against us.
“It is your age that would make you most unusual for an arrest,” said Professor Harry Levine, a Queens College sociologist who has documented marijuana arrests in New York and across the country. “If you were a 56-year-old white woman, you might get to be the first such weed bust ever in New York City — except, possibly, for a mentally ill person.”
About 87% of the marijuana arrests in the Bloomberg era have been of blacks and Latinos most of them men, and generally under the age of 25 — although surveys consistently show that whites are more likely to use it.
These drug busts were the No. 1 harvest of the city’s stop, question and frisk policing from 2009 through 2012, according to a report released Thursday by the New York State attorney general, Eric T. Schneiderman. Marijuana possession was the most common charge of those arrested during those stops. The few whites and Asians arrested on these charges were 50 percent more likely than blacks to have the case “adjourned in contemplation of dismissal,” the report showed.
Now, having a little bit of pot, like a joint, is not a crime as long as you don’t burn or openly display it. Having it in my backpack was a violation of law, meaning that it is an offense that is lower than a misdemeanor. Pot in the backpack is approximately the same as making an illegal turn in a car. Taking it out and waving it in the face of a police officer or lighting up a joint on the street would drive it up to the lowest-level misdemeanor.
How was it that all the black and Latino males were displaying or burning pot where it could be seen by the police?
The answer is that many of them were asked during the stops to empty their pockets. What had been a concealed joint and the merest violation of the law was transformed into a misdemeanor by being “openly displayed.” If these were illegal searches — and they very well could have been — good luck trying to prove it.
LAST year, the Bronx Defenders, which represents poor people in criminal court, tried to have suppression hearings in 54 cases involving marijuana possession. In such hearings, the police officer would have been required to testify about the circumstances under which the marijuana was found. If it was the result of an illegal search, the judge could have barred the use of the evidence.
But not once did the hearings go forward: missing paperwork, officer’s day off, the drip, drip of wasted time. On average, each case required five court appearances, and stretched over eight months. Most of the charges were dropped or lowered to noncriminal violations.
The process itself was the punishment, and it was inflicted almost exclusively on blacks and Latinos.
Michael A. Cardozo, the chief lawyer for the city, is eager to get an appeals court to throw out the findings of fact by a judge who ruled against the city in a lawsuit over the stop-and-frisk tactics. Mr. Cardozo appears to believe, mistakenly, that losing a lawsuit is going to damage the legacy of his patron, Mayor Bloomberg.
Undoing a lawsuit will not unstain this history.
As for me, the pot got to a couple of people who might need it to get through some medical storms. It’s too risky for me to use: I already have a hard enough time keeping my backpack zipped.
By Jim Dwyer, The New York Times, 11/14/13
Photo: Stock photo, Google.com
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