Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe
The latest evidence for this oddly logical approach comes wafting out of New York City, where arrests have dropped since the police chief ordered cops to change the ways they handle people caught with pot.
NYC police have been making about 50,000 arrests annually for low-level marijuana possession, most of them involving black and Latino men who were found with pot after being stopped and searched.
But in September, New York police commissioner Raymond Kelly issued a memo ordering an end to the routine. “A crime will not be charged to an individual who is requested or compelled to engage in the behavior that results in the public display of marihuana,” Kelly wrote. “The public display of marihuana must be an activity undertaken of the subject's own volition.”
Since then, no one has claimed an end to reefer madness—in the two months since Kelly’s directive, more than 7,900 people have been arrested for marijuana possession in New York, according to the Associated Press. But that’s also down 13 percent from the same period last year.
Pot possession is the leading cause of arrest in New York, as it is in Chicago. And many of these busts in both cities are the result of questionable searches. But if anything, the relative burden on the budget and justice system is probably greater here, since the rate of possession arrests is 36 percent higher than in New York.
New York is a reminder that drug policy—like all law enforcement policy—is a combination of the laws on the books and the approach taken by police on the street. New York state made simple possession of about an ounce a ticketable offense in 1977, though public display or use remained punishable by arrest. For years city cops have been using the tougher rules, especially on black and Latino men.
In other words, Father Pfleger may be right.
As the Chicago City Council and Illinois house consider changing marijuana laws, the south-side priest argues that police don’t need to wait to confront the grass gap—the fact that African-Americans account for 78 percent of those arrested, 89 percent of those convicted, and 92 percent of those jailed for low-level marijuana possession in Chicago.
“Unless someone’s selling it on the street in big quantities, I think we should be ignoring it,” Pfleger says. “I think depending on where you are and who the police are, it can be used to get somebody.”
Read more from Weed Week: