Police in New York City continued to arrest and issue summons to thousands of people over simple marijuana possession in the first quarter of 2021—which ended on the same day the governor signed a cannabis legalization bill into law.
Data from the New York Police Department (NYPD) that was released late last week shows that police made 163 arrests and handed out 3,687 summons for marijuana possession in the city’s final quarter of prohibition. And as has long been the trend both locally and nationally, those enforcement actions disproportionately impacted people of color.
Of the 3,687 possession-related summons issued from January through the end of March, for example, 2,374 were issued to black people, 1,089 were for hispanic people and just 102 were for white people. When it comes to arrests, 78 targeted black people, 70 involved hispanic people and just six white people were arrested for cannabis.
That’s despite the fact that rates of consumption are comparable across those races.
Put another way, black and hispanic people accounted for 94 percent of the total marijuana summonses and 91 percent of cannabis arrests in New York City last quarter—a rate that is greatly disproportionate to the racial makeup of the city’s population.
An analysis of earlier arrest and summons data from last year showed notable fluctuations quarter-over-quarter, but the numbers for the first quarter of 2020 are fairly consistent with the new figures from this year’s first quarter. From January through March of 2020, there were 3,623 summons issued and 132 arrests over marijuana. That is marginally lower than the new first quarter of 2021 data.
But what has been broadly consistent, and a major reason that lawmakers and advocates pushed for reform in the first place, is the racial disparities in those cases. For each quarter of 2020, black and Latino people accounted for more than 90 percent of all cannabis arrests and summonses, as explained by the Legal Aid Society.
If the new legalization law is being effectively implemented—and NYPD officers are following updated guidance that was issued after the reform bill was signed on March 31—those numbers should dramatically decline when data for the current quarter is released.
The legalization measure signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) immediately legalized possession of up to three ounces of cannabis or 24 grams of marijuana concentrates for adults 21 and older.
The age category with the most arrests and summons last quarter was people between 25 and 34. So while the retail sales component of the law has yet to be implemented, it stands to reason that the type of offenses covered in these quarterly reports will significantly decrease in the current quarter and in the future.
That said, while smoking of marijuana in public is now generally allowed, there are still places where it will remain prohibited such as parks and other areas where smoking tobacco is banned. Plus, people can still be cited for possessing more than three ounces of cannabis, and sales remain illegal. So there will likely be some level of enforcement action despite the policy change, and advocates will be closely monitoring to see to what extent profound racial disparities persist.
For both marijuana arrests and summonses, the new data shows that the majority of those took place in two of the city’s five boroughs: the Bronx and Brooklyn.
Not only will the state now save money by no longer having law enforcement pursue most adults over marijuana, but it also stands to generate a significant windfall in tax revenue once the retail market opens and matures. The state comptroller projected in a recent analysis that New York will eventually generate $245 million in annual cannabis revenue.
But the findings about last quarter’s arrests and summonses is reminiscent of another batch of data that came out of New Jersey’s largest city shortly after voters approved legalization via referendum last year.
The Newark Police Department made a total of 57 marijuana-related arrests in the first 20 days of 2021, compared to 63 arrests made for the same period in 2020. That’s despite the fact that state Attorney General Gurbir Grewal (D) issued guidance in November telling prosecutors not to take on low-level cannabis cases as lawmakers worked on legislation for a regulated market that has since been signed into law.
Photo courtesy of Martin Alonso.