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Black people in NYC are 8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites

The NYPD said more 911 calls were behind racial disparities in marijuana arrests. It doesn’t explain the difference. 

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Black New York City residents are arrested much more often than white people for marijuana-related charges, according to a new investigation from the New York Times.

The report is just the latest in a growing body of research that highlights a persistent racial gap in marijuana-related arrests.

Reporters examined the number of marijuana complaints sent through 911 or the city’s 311 help line from predominantly white neighborhoods and predominantly black or Hispanic neighborhoods in New York City. They then compared the number of marijuana arrests in those neighborhoods.

They found that black New Yorkers and, to a lesser degree, Hispanic New Yorkers were more likely to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses than white residents, despite government surveys finding that black and white people use marijuana at similar rates.

“Across the city, black people were arrested on low-level marijuana charges at eight times the rate of white, non-Hispanic people over the past three years,” the reporters noted. The Hispanic arrest rate was roughly five times that of whites.

The NYPD has argued that these disparities are the result of people in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods placing more calls about marijuana.

But the NYT analysis argues that more calls from these neighborhoods isn’t the cause of the difference. When reporters directly compared black neighborhoods and white neighborhoods with a similar number of complaints about marijuana, they found that far more arrests took place in the black neighborhoods. When arrests did take place in white neighborhoods, they disproportionately affected the small number of black and Hispanic people living in those areas.

In Brooklyn, for example, officers working in the predominantly black Canarsie precinct arrested people at a rate four times higher than in the predominantly white Greenpoint precinct, despite the fact that residents called in with marijuana-related complaints at similar rates.

The report serves as an additional reminder that even as marijuana becomes more accessible in many states across the country, people continue to face punishment for possessing or using it. And the ones who are the most likely to face punishment are people of color — especially black people.

Changing marijuana policy hasn’t reduced racial disparities

Part of the disparity in arrest rates could be due to the higher police presence in black and Hispanic neighborhoods. “More cops in neighborhoods means they’re more likely to encounter somebody smoking,” Jeffrey Fagan, a Columbia Law School professor, told reporters.

The gaps suggest that simply deprioritizing marijuana enforcement, an effort New York Mayor Bill de Blasio began when he entered office in 2014, is not enough to erase racial differences in arrests. The Times notes that in the first three months of 2018, roughly 4,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession; 89 percent of them were black or Hispanic.

Groups like the Drug Policy Alliance have also noted that these differences exist in states that have legalized marijuana. Laws that bar the public consumption of marijuana, ban marijuana sales, and prohibit marijuana use for people under 21 still exist in several of these states, and people of color are still arrested on these charges more often.

Experts argue that part of the issue lies in how black communities are perceived — and how they are treated by police. “What you have is people smoking weed in the same places in any neighborhood in the city,” Scott Levy, a special counsel with the Bronx Defenders who has looked into marijuana arrests, told the Times. “It’s just those neighborhoods are patrolled very, very differently. And the people in those neighborhoods are seen very differently by the police.”

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