Last month, I had the pleasure of attending the CATO Institute’s “Ending the Global War on Drugs” conference. The event featured a number of prominent scholars and international leaders who spoke about the impact of the U.S.-led drug war, both here and abroad. One of my favorite speakers of the day was Dr. Harry Levine, professor of sociology at Queens College and the Graduate Center of the City University of New York.
Dr. Levine has been researching the history and sociology of alcohol and drug policies for thirty years, and most recently has been working on the Marijuana Arrest Research Project, which collects and analyzes data on the immense number of marijuana possession arrests that the NYPD has made since 1996. (It should be noted here that possession of small amounts of marijuana has been decriminalized in the state of New York since 1977 — making it a violation, rather than a crime, so long as the marijuana is not in public view.) According to Levine, in New York City, misdemeanor marijuana possession accounts for more arrests than for any other crime, and because of the recent increase in the number of arrests, “it is appropriate to call this a marijuana arrest epidemic, and to describe what the NYPD has been doing as engaging in a marijuana arrest crusade.”
Dr. Levine’s lecture focused on the how and why of these marijuana possession arrests, explaining the various ways in which such arrests benefit police departments. In sum, police departments are pressured to show productivity, and these kinds of arrests are relatively safe and easy, involving “clean,” high-quality arrestees. Moreover, these arrests provide good training for rookies, deliver overtime pay for cops, allow supervisors to account for their underlings, and act as a net to get as many people into the system as possible, all at a cost borne entirely by the victims — the arrestees.
The federal government, according to Dr. Levine, actively supports these practices through the grant funding it provides to police departments. If departments receive these funds, they must justify how the money is spent, and what better, easier way to do that than with hordes of marijuana possession arrests? In short, this amounts to what LEAP board member (and fellow speaker at the conference) Leigh Maddox described as the “prostitution of the police peacekeeping mission for federal drug arrest dollars.” Dr. Levine suggests changing police productivity measures so as not to include small-time marijuana possession arrests. The punch line, Levine contends, is that rather than ending marijuana prohibition to put an end to marijuana arrests, it’s the inverse – by removing incentives for marijuana arrests we can move closer to ending marijuana prohibition.
But the answer of how to transform this tangled web of power, profit, incentive, and corruption remains unanswered. Sadly, such change is unlikely to be initiated by truth-telling law enforcement officers, or at least, active-duty ones. Last week, the New York Times reported on the consequences faced by two law enforcement officers who dared to express dissent with current drug policies. Both Bryan Gonzalez, a Border Patrol agent in New Mexico, and Joe Miller, a probation officer in Arizona, were fired from their positions — Gonzalez for questioning the war on drugs (specifically, the war on marijuana), Miller for expressing support for the decriminalization of marijuana. Fortunately, organizations like LEAP (Law Enforcement Against Prohibition) provide a forum for current and former members of law enforcement to express their frustrations with the harms and futility of our present drug policies and to support a system of drug regulation rather than prohibition. Unfortunately, many active-duty law enforcement members are reluctant or unwilling to speak out, and with good reason, in light of the sanctions faced by Gonzalez and Miller noted above.
On a positive note, The Wall Street Journal reported yesterday that low-level marijuana possession arrests have fallen 13 percent in New York City since a September directive issued from Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly cautioning officers to lay off the wrongful arrests of those possessing a small amount of marijuana concealed from public view. Hey … at least it’s something.
By Kate Zawid
Marijuana Policy Project
December 8, 2011
Why Cops Like Making Small-Time Marijuana Arrests