Governor Cuomo has taken a bold step in correcting the misuse of the New York State marijuana law, by decriminalizing visible possession of small amounts of the drug. But this could turn into one step forward and two steps backwards if more fundamental reforms aren’t forthcoming.
For the past several years approximately 50,000 people a year have been arrested in New York City for the possession of marijuana for personal use. Most of these arrests were the result of Stop and Frisk activity, in which people are either stopped and searched—often without reasonable suspicion, or they are intimidated or tricked into showing the officer the marijuana, thus changing the charge from a violation for “private possession,” to a misdemeanor for “public display.”
These arrests can lead to the loss of jobs, financial aid, and government benefits, as well as a criminal drug offense record and all the long term negative consequences that go with it. This is not what the State Legislature had in mind when they attempted to decriminalize personal possession of marijuana in 1977.
Governor Cuomo’s initiative would have a significant positive effect on the lives of tens of thousands of people who would avoid an overwhelmingly counterproductive involvement with the criminal justice system. The results would be especially positive for poor Black and Latino neighborhoods that bear the brunt of narcotics enforcement and Stop and Frisk activity.
This approach to drug enforcement is not, however, without risks. While Stop and Frisk and narcotics enforcement in these neighborhoods has been deeply problematic and in some cases unlawful, it has played a part in the reduction of low level social disorder on the streets. The consequences of reigning in this sometimes excessive, racially biased, and unlawful policing, might be some return of the disorder problems of the 1980’s and 90’s as marijuana sales and use become more open and potentially widespread. Cities like Amsterdam, Vancouver, and Seattle have grappled with exactly these kinds of problems.
If the public feels that disorderly conditions on the streets have increased, it could lead to the kind of “get tough” backlash that brought neoconservative politicians such as former mayor Rudolph Giuliani to power on a platform of more intensive and invasive policing, putting us right back where we started.
What then is the solution? We need to do two things. First we must directly address the roots of the disorder that the police are keeping in check. As long as unemployment for young men of color runs above 50%, the siren song of life of the streets will be hard to resist for many. And while most marijuana dealers and users have an unemployment problem, more than a drug problem, there is a profound shortage of on demand drug and mental health treatment, especially in poor communities of color.
Second, marijuana shouldn’t be decriminalized, it should be legalized. The regulated legal sale of marijuana would take the crime out of marijuana use—which is at the root of many of the disorder complaints by community members. It is the street level drug dealing and the violence that sometimes accompanies it that degrades public life in these communities, much more that the actual prevalence of the use of the drugs. By bringing sales indoors in a controlled environment with proper taxation and enforcement of age restrictions, marijuana could be taken out of the criminal underworld, denying them a major source of profits.
As long as we continue to wage a War on Drugs and a War on the Poor, minor changes in the wording of the drug laws will do little to significantly change the negative impact of policing in these communities. It’s time we treated drugs as a public health and employment issue rather than a criminal justice problem.
Alex S. Vitale is author of City of Disorder, How the Quality of Life Campaign Transformed New York Politics (NYU 2009). He teaches criminology and sociology of law at Brooklyn College.