Last night, BuzzFeed released a gripping video about one New Yorker’s harrowing experience of being arrested for marijuana possession. A Marijuana Arrest tells the story of former Manhattan Public School art teacher Alberto Willmore, who recounts how his life was upended after NYPD officers aggressively seized and charged him with marijuana possession. Mr. Willmore immediately lost his teaching job, spent nearly two years fighting the case in court, and – even though the case was thrown out – he was still penalized by his employer, the Department of Education.
New Yorkers are all too familiar with stories like Mr. Willmore’s. Since 2002, nearly 500,000 people have been arrested in New York for marijuana possession – the vast majority of those arrests, 440,000, took place in New York City. In 2012 alone in the City, there were nearly 40,000 such arrests, far exceeding the total marijuana arrests in NYC from 1981-1995. The cost to taxpayers is at least $75 million a year, and over $600 million in the last decade, a profound waste of money. A report released earlier this year found that the NYPD had spent one million hours making these arrests over the past decade.
Last month, New York’s Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman released a major new report analyzing NYPD’s stop-and-frisk program. The analysis shows that marijuana possession is among the top arrests resulting from stop and frisk. The AG’s report highlights the racial bias in the stops and arrests, and outlines the collateral consequences – such as deportation, the loss of housing and student loans, and, as was Mr. Willmore’s experience, loss of employment.
In Mr. Willmore’s case, he wasn’t smoking marijuana – he was smoking a tobacco cigarette. Yet the day after his arrest, he received a letter from the New York Department of Education telling him that he was no longer employed at the school he served as a founding member.
“Since that day of my arrest, I have not seen my classes, any students or staff members,” said Mr.Willmore. “I miss my school, I miss the staff, I miss the students. It is upsetting to think that I, a founding member of the Ella Baker school, can’t go back, all because I was arrested for basically smoking a cigarette and observing my art. That’s all I did that day.”
City officials and advocates hope that Mr. Willmore’s story will add pressure to Mayor-elect Bill de Blasio and incoming Police Commissioner William Bratton to publicly announce changes to stop the racially biased, costly, and unconstitutional marijuana arrests in New York City and demand Albany legislators end the political standoff and pass the statewide legislative fix once and for all.
When running for office, de Blasio opposed these racist, costly, and unconstitutional marijuana arrests, and now that he’s going to be Mayor, he should follow through on this commitment. Albany needs to act, but so too does New York City. This marijuana arrest crusade is leading to people losing their jobs, getting separated from their families, and for some, to even lose their lives, as in Ramarley Graham’s case. No one should lose their job, their family or their life over a marijuana arrest.
Kassandra Frederique is a New York policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance.