Skip to main content

Marijuana law just creates criminals

By Hakeem Jeffries, Special to CNN
updated 4:29 PM EDT, Wed June 6, 2012
In New York, if this marijuana were in a pocket, possession would not be a crime. Hakeem Jeffries says the law is inconsistent.
In New York, if this marijuana were in a pocket, possession would not be a crime. Hakeem Jeffries says the law is inconsistent.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • In 2011, 50,000 mostly black and Latino people arrested in New York for having a little pot
  • Hakeem Jeffries: Carrying a small amount is not a crime, but having it in public view is
  • Jeffries: Police order people to empty pockets, and if they take out pot, it is now in public view
  • Jeffries says the marijuana penalty needs to be reduced and law changed

Editor's note: Hakeem Jeffries is an assemblyman who represents the 57th Assembly District in central Brooklyn, New York. He's running for the Democratic nomination in New York's 8th Congressional District.

(CNN) -- More than 50,000 people in 2011 were arrested in New York City for possessing small amounts of marijuana -- the majority of whom were black and Latino -- at a considerable judicial and financial cost. New York City spends about $75 million every year on arresting people for recreational marijuana possession.

But what many people don't know is that the state decriminalized this offense more than 30 years ago, making private possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana a violation punishable by a $100 fine. Possession of the same amount in public view remains a criminal misdemeanor.

Despite this change in law, arrests for small quantities of marijuana over the last decade have skyrocketed, with more than 400,000 people arrested and unceremoniously run through the criminal justice system. Marijuana possession is now the No. 1 arrest category in New York.

Why is this happening?

Hakeem Jeffries
Hakeem Jeffries
New York decriminalizing marijuana?
Is it time to legalize marijuana?

Each year, hundreds of thousands of people in New York are stopped, questioned, frisked and searched, often without justification, under the "stop and frisk" policy. The vast majority of these people live in communities of color, and almost 90% are immediately released without arrest or even a summons.

Often, however, the police approach young people and instruct them to empty their pockets immediately and show the officers anything they have. People who have a small quantity of marijuana in their pockets take it out and hold it up. The marijuana is now in public view. Thousands of people are then arrested and charged with misdemeanor possession, punishable by up to three months in jail and a $500 fine.

Given the change of law in 1977, had the marijuana remained in the person's pocket, possession would not have been a crime at all. But in complying with a police officer's request, otherwise noncriminal behavior is instantly transformed into an arrest and unceremonious journey through the criminal justice system.

This is fundamentally unfair. Many view it as classic entrapment.

A majority of these arrests happen only in certain neighborhoods. Indeed, compounding the injustice is the fact that 85% of the people arrested are black and Latino. Yet studies consistently show that younger and affluent whites use marijuana in equal if not greater numbers.

The consequences of an arrest are severe, especially for young people of color who are already disproportionately subjected to criminal justice system intervention and incarceration. An arrest creates serious barriers to going to college or getting a job, and that person's future may begin to spiral downward. The damage to police and community relations cannot be overstated.

Another serious problem is that these needless and inappropriate arrests detract from arresting and prosecuting serious criminals. Millions of dollars in law enforcement resources are wasted. Thousands of lives are damaged with the contamination of having a criminal record.

But New York is prepared to take a significant step forward to solve this problem. With the leadership of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, we are on the brink of finishing the job that the state Legislature started in 1977. We want to reduce the classification of possession of small quantities of marijuana in plain view from a misdemeanor to a violation.

Justice demands this change. The possession of small quantities of marijuana is either a crime or it is not. But it cannot be criminal activity for one group of people and socially acceptable behavior for another when the dividing line is race.

The connected and powerful -- including many in high political office -- have frequently admitted to smoking marijuana when they were young. We didn't unmercifully penalize them. We should stop needlessly criminalizing tens of thousands of our young people for doing the same thing.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of Hakeem Jeffries.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
updated 12:53 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jeff Yang calls Ello a wakeup call to Facebook and Twitter, and a sign of hope for fast-rising upstarts Pinterest and Snapchat.
updated 4:28 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Paul Waldman says the Secret Service should examine its procedures to make sure there are no threats to the White House--but without losing the openness so valuable to democracy
updated 4:49 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Jesse Williams says the videotape and 911 call that resulted in police gunning down John Crawford at a Walmart reveals the fatal injustice of racial assumptions
updated 10:59 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Mel Robbins says officials should drop the P.C. pose: The beheading in Oklahoma was not workplace violence. Plenty of evidence shows Alton Nolen was an admirer of ISIS.
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, William Piekos says..
updated 3:11 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
The Occupy Central movement has already achieved much by bringing greater attention to Hong Kong's struggle for democracy, writes William Piekos.
updated 10:13 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
As Prime Minister Narendra Modi visits America, Madeleine Albright says a world roiled by conflict needs these two great democracies to commit to moving their partnership forward
updated 10:04 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
John Sutter: Lake Providence, Louisiana, is the parish seat of the "most unequal place in America." And until somewhat recently, the poor side of town was invisible on Google Street View.
updated 9:11 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Julian Zelizer says in the run up to the 2016 election the party faces divisions on its approach to the U.S.'s place in the world
updated 10:19 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
Ruben Navarrette says Common Core supporters can't devise a new set of standards and then fail to effectively sell it.
updated 9:29 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
Earlier this month, Kenyans commemorated the heinous attack on the Westgate Mall in Nairobi.
updated 2:59 PM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
David Wheeler says Colorado students are right to protest curriculum changes that downplays civil disobedience.
updated 9:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Sally Kohn says when people click on hacked celebrity photos or ISIS videos, they are encouraging the bad guys.
updated 7:55 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Loren Bunche says she walked by a homeless man every day and felt bad about it -- until one day she paused to get to know him
updated 9:32 AM EDT, Tue September 30, 2014
ISIS grabs headlines on social media, but hateful speech is no match for moderate voices, says Nadia Oweidat.
updated 8:33 AM EDT, Mon September 29, 2014
A new report counts jihadists fighting globally. The verdict? The threat isn't that big, says Peter Bergen.
updated 5:37 PM EDT, Tue September 23, 2014
Ebola could become the biggest humanitarian disaster in a generation, writes former British Prime Minister Tony Blair
updated 12:58 PM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
ISIS has shocked the world. But will releasing videos of executions backfire? Four experts give their take.
updated 10:39 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
Eric Holder kicked off his stormy tenure as attorney general with a challenge to the public that set tone for six turbulent years as top law-enforcement officer.
updated 9:09 AM EDT, Fri September 26, 2014
LZ Granderson says Obama was elected as a war-ending change agent, not a leader who would leave behind for his successor new engagement in Iraq and Syria. Is he as disappointed as the rest of us?
updated 5:10 AM EDT, Wed September 24, 2014
Gayle Lemmon says the question now is how to translate all the high-profile feminizing into real gains for women
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT
ADVERTISEMENT