Racial Bias Found in Westchester Pot Arrests

BY NATHAN RILEY | The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree when it comes to marijuana enforcement in New York City’s suburbs.

Black and brown people are singled out for marijuana possession arrests in Westchester County, according to studies by the Drug Policy Alliance and suburban civil libertarians.

A new study of Westchester arrests found racial disparities comparable to the ones that mar city enforcement and provide evidence that legalization of pot would provide real benefits to communities of color.

Suburban county’s law enforcement pattern mirrors NYC’s

Per 100,000 people in Westchester, 15 whites but 182 blacks and 84 Latinos were arrested for possessing pot. Some portion of those people of color arrested face the risk of deportation as the result of this enforcement pattern.

The study, prepared by Kathy Kaufman of the Westchester Coalition for Police Reform, found that between 2013 and 2017, one in 63 of Westchester’s black adult residents was arrested on a low-level marijuana possession charge — a probability of arrest for black people that was exceeded only by Suffolk County outside of New York City.

Young people of color were arrested more often than white youth, burdening them with a criminal record.

“Between 2013 and 2017, Westchester police arrested 1,059 youth under 20 years old for low level marijuana possession, accounting for nearly one in three (29 percent) arrests on that charge County-wide,” the study found. “Fifty-eight percent — a total of 2,322 people — arrested for low-level marijuana possession in Westchester County were 25 years old or younger.”

The report “Marijuana Arrests and Enforcement in Westchester County: A New York Story” sustains the argument recently advanced by the State Health Department that legalization would communities of color because an “emerging body of research” shows that “the risks to public health and social wellbeing of legalizing marijuana are smaller than previously thought” and the “the detrimental effects of the current marijuana enforcement regime” cause more harm than the alternative of making pot available for adult use.

The Westchester study was funded by the Drug Policy Alliance as it pushes for passage of laws to tax and regulate marijuana sales as is currently done in California, Colorado, and Massachusetts.

This story was posted on August 2, 2018 at GayCityNews.com

De Blasio Dithers on Marijuana

BY NATHAN RILEY | Public officials in the city and state should suspend marijuana enforcement until Albany resolves the pressing question of legalization.

A new consensus is gaining momentum that the risks of marijuana can be controlled by public health measures. At its recent State Convention, New York State Democrats supported legal adult sales of recreational marijuana, declaring that weed is “is less harmful than alcohol and tobacco.”

Meanwhile, top health officials in New York City and New York State have endorsed a tax and regulate model for adult recreational use. It is a new era where health issues need no longer hinder legalization, and the debate centers on how to implement a new approach to marijuana.

Mayor’s supposed “advance” will still lead to arrests

In a report to Governor Andrew Cuomo made public last week, Dr. Howard Zucker, the state health commissioner, said he doesn’t subscribe to the theory that marijuana represents a gateway to harder drugs. Zucker’s conclusion has been widely held by other public health officials for years. The National Institute of Drug Abuse points to some rodent studies that indicate early use of marijuana could make the brain susceptible to an appetite for other drugs. Studies like this agree with epidemiological data that show that use of drugs in early adolescents is correlated with abuse as adults. But then there is a big qualifier here: “the majority of people who use marijuana do not go on to use other, ‘harder’ substances.”

Moreover, NIDA notes “cross-sensitization is not unique to marijuana. Alcohol and nicotine also prime the brain for a heightened response to other drugs.” This trio of drug are “typically used before a person progresses to other, more harmful substances.”

Given this pattern, NIDA offers “an alternative to the gateway-drug hypothesis.” Drug users “are simply more likely to start with readily available substances such as marijuana, tobacco, or alcohol, and their subsequent social interactions with others who use drugs increases their chances of trying other drugs.” You choose friends you are comfortable with and, in turn, you have shared activities.

From this perspective, the longstanding war on pot is not justified; use of marijuana may have a link to other drug use later in life, but it doesn’t necessarily cause it. Arrests are unwarranted, particularly given the high likelihood that legalization is on its way, but Mayor Bill de Blasio remains stubbornly resistant to this new reality.

With a great flourish, he recently announced that smoking in public would be greeted with a summons not arrests, arguing he was making a real concession.  But other member of the Democratic Party and advocates blasted his proposal.

The chairs of two criminal justice committees in the City Council joined advocates June 20 on the steps of City Hall attacking the mayor’s plan. Their critique burst de Blasio’s hopes of appearing progressive; the plan, they said, represented only the smallest of steps forward.

Queens Councilmember Rory Lancman, who heads up the Committee on the Justice System, blasted the mayor’s plan on the steps of City Hall and in a statement, saying, “No one should be arrested for smoking marijuana, period.” Calling the new plan a sham, he noted that a speeding ticket is a civil summons, but that de Blasio’s action on marijuana involves a criminal summons.

“The mayor’s policy does not attempt to reduce criminal summonses at all, still allows arrests in circumstances that cannot be justified by public safety,” Lancman said.

Then, in a thrust that must hurt a mayor whose political persona is defined by opposition to all forms of discrimination, Lancman predicted the plan “will likely make marijuana policing even more discriminatory toward people of color, continues to expose noncitizens to deportation, and takes no steps to eliminate the collateral consequences which are in the city’s control.”

Joining him was another Queens councilmember, Donovan Richards, who chairs the Committee on Public Safety that oversees the NYPD, as well as Brooklyn Councilmembers Antonio Reynoso and Jumaane Williams, the latter of whom is challenging Lieutenant Governor Kathy Hochul in the September Democratic primary and is aligned with Cynthia Nixon’s gubernatorial bid.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer, a likely candidate for mayor in 2021, joined the demonstrators, saying “too many live have been ruined, too many people of color have been targeted.” As he left the speaker’s podium, he reminded everyone that he is “the money guy. If you will legalize, you will actually create a $3 billion dollar industry” and tens of thousand new jobs. With more revenue, he said, “you will have an opportunity to invest more in the community.”

Kassandra Frederique, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, called for a “clear-cut policy saying no arrests, no justification for putting people into the criminal system — period.”

Public defenders, organizations representing minority youth like Make the Road New York, and drug reformers like VOCAL-NY also stressed that New York must stop relying on criminal penalties.

Under the mayor’s plan, anybody stopped for marijuana who is not carrying identification can be arrested and fingerprinted and that could lead ICE to identify them for deportation, Legal Aid Society lawyers argued.

According to de Blasio, his plan will make things better because there will be fewer arrests.

But he avoids a basic ethical question. If marijuana will be legal in eight or nine months, how can enforcement be justified now? Campaigners for legal marijuana are eager to avoid any arrests for a drug that is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco. Keeping young people’s records clean means they can can qualify for better jobs and increase their earning potential — a factor particularly salient in low income neighborhoods and communities of color. This is one piece of the argument that legalization will be good for the state’s economy.

The case against arrests is implicit in the Democratic Party’s recent resolution. “Marijuana laws have not had a significant impact on marijuana availability,” the statement reads. If the law fails to curb use, then no individuals, much less poor black and brown youth, should be criminally punished in a futile exercise. That is why enforcement should be suspended and the Legislature be given time to create a new policy.

The mayor’s “advance,” meanwhile, continues major injustices. As Gothamist headlined its story about de Blasio’s announcement: “NYPD Will Stop Arresting SOME People For Smoking Pot.” Among those who will be arrested are parolees. It is hard to think of a crueler outcome for getting high than going back to prison after enjoying freedom. In fact, according to the Daily News, some federal judges are refusing to play along with this. Judge Jack Weinstein, a liberal lion on the federal bench in Brooklyn, made the news with “a remarkable 42-page ruling explaining why he would not send 22-year-old Tyran Trotter back to prison for three years — longer than his original sentence! — for smoking pot, a technical violation of his post-release terms,” according to the Daily News.”

In his years as mayor, de Blasio has displayed an uncanny talent for isolating himself politically. His ties to the drug reform movement were already frayed by his long delay in supporting safer consumption spaces that offer medical support to drug users during their time of greatest peril in the minutes after they inject. His months-long stall on the issue is now being followed by Cuomo’s own foot-dragging in giving the state’s go-ahead.

If de Blasio were to advocate for complete suspension of marijuana law enforcement pending action in Albany, he would become a leader with a national constituency and polish his fading progressive image. Instead, he is allied with the police, which will always show more loyalty to Cuomo than to him in any event. At a time when the mayor needs allies and a chance to reignite the initial enthusiasm he stirred, he is increasing his troubles by standing pat rather than making a bold move forward.

This article was posted on GayCityNews.com on July 19, 2018

State Health Commish Gives Pot a Go

A report from Dr. Howard Zucker, the state health commissioner, has blessed the legalization of marijuana. | NYS DEPARTMENT OF HEALTH

BY NATHAN RILEY | In a report that will be read by public health officials across the country, the New York State Health Department has declared that legalizing marijuana would bring positive benefits; the “pros outweigh the cons,” opined Dr. Howard Zucker, the state health commissioner.

The report, which went public last week, makes it clear that legalization will improve health outcomes. After reading the report, it would be easy to conclude pot smokers are no different from the rest of the population. The report emphasizes that consumer safety will improve with laboratory-tested pot, its potency carefully labeled and customers able to pick the plant that brings the most satisfaction. Here health and pleasure form a useful synergy, and regulations reduce risks.

The risk that an emancipation effect will spur a sudden surge in use is low. By age 18, 52 percent of New Yorkers have tried marijuana. Under the current system, there is no shortage of supply, and the report suggests that limiting sales to licensed stores will make it more difficult for those under 21 to find pot.

Dr. Howard Zucker’s report finds improved health outcomes, economic benefits

Current law fails to restrict supply, and that means arresting users and suppliers accomplishes little. The report implies pot busts are cruel and pointless.

Sustaining these penalties are scare stories about marijuana that create fear but lack merit. A big lie is enshrined in federal law; it declares marijuana is a Schedule 1 drug with “no medical use” and a high potential for abuse. The problem of abuse can better be addressed after legalization when its use will be regulated. The report expresses the hope that legalizing pot will reduce the use of opioids.

Some studies have indicated that in places with medical marijuana there are fewer opioid overdose deaths. New York State has seen a 180 percent increase in overdose death between 2010 and 2016 to more than 3,000 a year, and every year more people die than the year before.

Occasionally a dry wit is displayed in Zucker’s report. During a discussion about marijuana causing a loss of motivation, it is described as a “temporary transient state,” not a permanent condition. Findings like these lead to the conclusion that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol or tobacco and undermine the rationale for its prohibition under federal law.

The exaggerated claims about harm from marijuana have been accompanied by a vicious enforcement policy. “Statewide, New York’s marijuana arrest rate of 535 arrests per 100,000 people was the highest of any state in 2010 and double the national average” with 103,698 arrests for possession, according to the report.

“The impact of low level marijuana offenses extends” beyond expenditure of criminal justice resources, the report notes. “Individuals who have a criminal record often face challenges throughout their lives.” It disproportionately criminalized black and brown residents. In 2017, the problem persisted, the reporting finding that “86 percent of the people arrested for marijuana possession in the fifth degree in 2017 were people of color; 48 percent were Black, and 38 percent were Hispanic. Only nine percent were White.” And the black and brown defendants received tougher punishment than whites.

Strikingly, “It is rare that these arrests lead to the discovery of guns or violent crimes,” the report stated.

And arrests have a health impact: Arrests and incarceration disrupt families, hindering access to education and health care, and increasing poverty “particularly in low-income communities of color where arrests are concentrated despite equivalent rates of marijuana use across racial groups,” the report stated. “Incarceration of family members destabilizes families and is considered an adverse childhood experience (ACE).” Incarceration also has “an impact on community health in many areas (including teenage pregnancies and sexually transmitted infections).”

Legalization will bring improvements in community health for low-income neighborhoods, the report concluded.

To rectify past harms, the report recommends that “NYS expunge the criminal records of individuals with marijuana-related offenses.”

Meanwhile, developing tests for driving while using marijuana will improve once tax revenues from pot sales can finance this research.

Legalization will create a new industry in New York State. The report estimates that at “an average retail price of $270 per ounce, the market for marijuana is estimated to be approximately $1.7 billion; at $340 per ounce, the market is estimated to be approximately $3.5 billion.” Estimated tax revenues could fall between $248 million and $677 million, but the goal of raising taxes conflicts with the public policy imperative of ending the illegal market. The more expensive legal marijuana is, the greater the likelihood that the unregulated market will continue.

Preliminary data from Colorado suggests that legalization did not bring “statistically different” vehicular crash rates — though studies of marijuana impacts on traffic accidents are funded only sporadically and the data is imperfect.

The State Health Department’s “Assessment of the Potential Impact of the Regulated Market in Marijuana for New York State” argues that legalization improves public health and recommends that its licensing be separate from alcohol and tobacco. The details are not spelled out in the report but will be debated during the coming year. Health is no longer the issue; the hows and wheres are what are left to be decided.

This article was added to GayCityNews.com on July 19, 2018

State Assembly Holds Hearing on Legalizing Pot

This article appeared on ManhattanExpressNews.nyc january 5, 2018

BY NATHAN RILEY | Demanding that New York State stop racist law enforcement patterns by legalizing adult use of marijuana, advocates told members of the State Assembly, including Health Committee chair Richard N. Gottfried, a West Side Democrat, that police stops are traumatizing black and brown New Yorkers.

At a Jan. 11 hearing in Lower Manhattan, speaker after speaker insisted that being searched, handcuffed, marched into court, and chained to other arrestees in the morning is often traumatizing.

“Marijuana decriminalization has fallen short and will continue to do so,” Kassandra Frederique, the New York State director of the Drug Policy Alliance, contended.

Even with reductions in stop and frisk, it remains up to the police officer to distinguish between private possession and possession in public view, which can trigger a criminal arrest. Those nabbed, overwhelmingly black and Latino New Yorkers, are fingerprinted and given retinal scans. Police officers have no immediate way of knowing if their victim faces deportation or loss of a job or a scholarship, but no matter what the arrestee is left cowed and confused.

Over the past 20 years, more than 800,000 New Yorkers living in a “decriminalized” legal environment have faced criminal charges. In 2016, there were 20,133 arrests, more than 85 percent of them among African-American and Latinx New Yorkers and one-third of them under 21.

The Start SMART (Sensible Marijuana Access through Regulated Trade) New York campaign supplied most of the witnesses at a joint hearing of the Assembly Health, Codes, and Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Committees. With Codes chair Joe Lentol of Brooklyn out sick, Gottfried presided with fellow West Sider Linda B. Rosenthal, who chairs Alcoholism and Substance Abuse. The three committee chairs have primary oversight of legislation legalizing marijuana that is sponsored by Buffalo’s Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes, who traveled to the city for the hearing. The effort is championed in the Senate by East Side Democrat Liz Krueger.

Frederique demonstrated the dire need for reform with horrifying stories of marijuana arrests gone wrong. Two New York City detectives were indicted for raping an 18-year-old girl after searching her car for marijuana. Wayne Henderson, a 25-year-old New Yorker, died on Rikers Island after his parole was revoked for marijuana possession. One fifth of all parolees sent back to prison are violated for pot-related infractions. In the Bronx, 69-year-old Mario Sanabria died during a no-knock search for marijuana. He was taking care of his 92-year-old brother-in-law, and the man named in the warrant was not at home. According to a July 21, 2017 New York Times story, the city’s Administration for Children’s Services separated Colyssa Stapleton from her children for months before it became clear she was a victim of a false marijuana arrest.

Other reasons advanced for legalizing pot included the tax revenue stream available to officials contending with an estimated $4 billion shortfall in state revenue and the opportunities for enhancing the medical marijuana program currently crippled by restrictions imposed by Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2014.

The hearing included testimony from two police professionals. Sheriff Barry Virts, from Wayne County on Lake Ontario, warned that legal pot would make the drug more easily available to young people, but Major Neill Franklin, a retired Maryland police officer who is executive director of LEAP, an organization of police officers opposed to prohibition, supported adult use. He argued that the illegal sellers use children to sell and deliver product because the young need the money and if arrested face lighter penalties.

The Assembly hearing took place amidst a roller coast ride for the emerging legal pot movement. On Jan. 1, legal sales began in California, but just three days later, US Attorney General Jeff Sessions terminated an Obama era policy of stepping back from federal prosecution of marijuana growth and sales operating legally under state law. Almost immediately, a cloud was cast over legal activities in eight states. The head of Alaska’s cannabis program, a police chief, immediately resigned.

In Colorado, however, where pot became legal four years ago, Democrats and Republicans rose in unison to protect their program. Republican Senator Cory Gardner warned Sessions he would block appointments at the Justice Department unless the AG backed down. Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic leader, defended California’s new law, insisting that protection of legal pot sales be in the budget with a bar on federal dollars going to pot prosecutions in states that have legalized. Politico could find no member of Congress willing to speak up in favor of Sessions’ assault on adult-use legalization.

The legislature in Vermont responded to Sessions by becoming the second state sharing a border with New York to adopt adult-use. Massachusetts’ legalization will be implemented later this year. And New Jersey, under the leadership of Governor Phil Murphy, elected last year on a pro-legalization platform with 56 percent of the vote, is likely to follow suit soon.

The nation’s earliest legal pot initiatives came through the work of advocates who won popular referenda. In New York, the lead will be taken by legislators, not first and foremost the advocates. Following the Jan. 11 hearing, Gottfried, in a written statement, said, “The hearing was extraordinarily informative, and the testimony certainly conveyed the importance of the issue for people’s lives. People need to understand that this is not about just allowing a recreational activity; our current law destroys tens of thousands of lives a year. The hearing made that very clear.”

Last week, Cuomo announced a study of a “Regulated Marijuana Program” in consultation with “state agencies” that will look at the impact of “legalization in surrounding states.” There was no mention in the governor’s announcement of studying the program in Colorado, which now has four years of success under its belt.

Marijuana Justice Bill Advances to the House



Senator Cory Booker with Representatives Barbara Lee and Ro Kahanna at the Washington D.C. news conference announcing the introduction of the Marijuana Justice Act into the House.

Jan 22, 2018



by Nathan Riley

A bill dubbed the “most ambitious marijuana legislation in recent history” by a prestigious law school journal has just been introduced into the House of Representatives. Read more