Pot as Pretext: Marijuana, Race and the New Disorder in New York City Street Policing

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July 8, 2010
Amanda Geller and Jeffrey Fagan
Columbia University

Although possession of small quantities of marijuana has been decriminalized in New York State since the late 1970s, arrests for marijuana possession in New York City have increased more than tenfold since the mid-1990s, and remain high more than ten years later. This rise has been a notable component of the City’s “Order Maintenance Policing” strategy, designed to aggressively target low-level offenses, usually through street interdictions known as “Stop, Question, and Frisk” activity. The researchers analyzed data on 2.2 million stops and arrests carried out from 2004 to 2008, and identified significant racial disparities in the implementation of marijuana enforcement. The racial imbalance in marijuana enforcement in black neighborhoods suggest a “doubling down” of street-level policing in places already subject to heightened scrutiny in the search for weapons, a link which suggests that the policing of marijuana may be a pretext in the search for guns. However, the researchers show no significant relationship between marijuana enforcement activity and the likelihood of seizing firearms or other weapons. The racial skew, questionable constitutionality, and limited efficiency of marijuana enforcement in detecting serious crimes suggest that non-white New Yorkers bear a racial tax from contemporary policing strategy, a social cost not offset by any substantial observed benefits to public safety.

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