Laws governing the possession and use of marijuana can be hard to keep straight, particularly now that some states have legalized it for medical and/or recreational use. In one state you might have a valid medical card that allows you to purchase weed, but you cross the border and having it on your person is a felony. Then you cross another border and it’s completely fine if you’ve just bought some to take home and get high. Things are all the more complicated because President Trump is trying to eradicate states’ rights when it comes to marijuana, although that’s another story entirely. Of all the policy changes and shifting state laws, New York has perhaps the most interesting story.
In the 1970s, police in New York were conducting raids and making mass arrests for marijuana possession. Their focus was largely on college campuses and concert venues, places where there were likely to be large gatherings of young people. In 1973, for example, 36 people were arrested in one night at Nassau Coliseum on Long Island during a Grateful Dead concert. In previous months, 270 people had been arrested at that same venue. The public was outraged, particularly the parents of all those college kids. There were also protests about how the entire thing smacked of Gestapo police tactics.
In 1977, state legislators thought they had come up with a solution – a bill called the Marijuana Reform Act of 1977, which made carrying small amounts of marijuana a ticket-worthy violation instead of a crime. The exception, which left a loophole that would be aggressively pursued by police, was that carrying marijuana open to public view was still a crime. Police would ask people to empty their pockets and then arrest them for displaying marijuana. This became such a problem that in 2011, the police commissioner had to issue a memo reminding officers of the meaning of the law.
These actions, according to critics, were not only illegal but discriminatory, as the people who police chose to stop and frisk – ostensibly because they suspected them of some other crime – where overwhelmingly minorities. It’s no longer college kids and Deadheads that are being targeted. 85 percent of the people arrested through these stop and frisk marijuana finds are either black or Latino, despite the fact that studies show white men are more likely to use marijuana. Those who accuse the police of discrimination say that they’re not necessarily targeting minorities for marijuana possession, but rather looking for any sort of crime to pin on them. The police themselves say that the entire rationale for stop and frisk is to get guns off the street, so if nothing else they would appear to be targeting minorities for that.
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