Black and Hispanic People Are Disproportionately Arrested on Marijuana Charges in New York


An analysis by the New York Times found that Black people were arrested on low-level marijuana charges across New York City at eight times the rate of white, non-Hispanic people over the past three years. Hispanic people were arrested at five times the rate of white people. In Manhattan, Black people were arrested at 15 times the rate of white people.

Reporters examined where arrests for low-level marijuana possession were made and how they were related to the rate of complaints, race, violent crime levels, poverty, and homeownership data in each precinct, and interviewed defendants, lawyers, and police officers. Their findings reveal “a picture of uneven enforcement.”

While government surveys show that Black and white people use marijuana at roughly the same rate, 87 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession in recent years have been Black or Hispanic.

“What you have is people smoking weed in the same places in any neighborhood in the city,” Scott Levy, a special counsel to the criminal defense practice at the Bronx Defenders, who has studied 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.”

A senior official with the New York Police Department told lawmakers that the disparity was attributable to more residents in predominantly Black and Hispanic neighborhoods calling to complain about marijuana. While police data show that neighborhoods with many Black and Hispanic residents tend to generate more calls about marijuana, reporters found this explanation does not fully explain the racial disparity in arrests. Instead, across neighborhoods where residents called the police about marijuana at the same rate, the police almost always made arrests at a higher rate in the area with more Black residents.

The data also show that African American and Hispanic people are the main targets of low-level marijuana arrests even in mostly white neighborhoods. For example, in the Upper West Side, white residents outnumber Black and Hispanic residents by six to one, but seven out of every 10 people charged with marijuana possession in the last three years are Black or Hispanic.

Despite Mayor Bill de Blasio’s campaign promise to “reverse the racial impact of low-level marijuana arrests,” and new Brooklyn district attorney Ken Thompson’s decision to stop prosecuting many low-level marijuana arrests, the disparities persist.