The Long Road to Freedom

Hangman's Elm in Washington Square Park, New Y...

Hangman's Elm in Washington Square Park, NYC; We are still looking at widespread racist laws in NYC

NOTE: While a handful of user activists trudged back and forth from their hotel to the UN building, – never forgetting I must add – the reason why we were there – New York citizens who use drugs were also undergoing their own battles. I almost went to the National Puerto Rican Day Parade, as it was only up a few blocks from my hotel, and it’s a shame that I didn’t, so when i saw this story in the New York Times it was a stark reminder how we all fight against the oppressiveness of misguided and plain ridiculous drug policies every single day and how the consequences can stretch from losing your first hard won job -to getting HIV from lack of access to effective prevention. Have a read of this…

Reprint: About New York

A Call to Shift Policy on Marijuana

By JIM DWYER

Published: June 14, 2011

Night court in Manhattan, Monday, 7:30 p.m

For a moment, after the lawyers had finished talking and the judge had murmured the sentence, Felix did not move. He stood in front of the bench, then looked at his lawyer, who nodded and sent him to wait in the pews with the spectators.

Felix slid into the second row, the tension heaving from him in a big sigh. For the first time in more than 30 hours, he was not sitting among the arrested in the holding cells. On Sunday morning, he was arrested on a charge of misdemeanor possession of marijuana with a group of other young men gathered on 42nd Street for the National Puerto Rican Day Parade.

“It’s jammed back there in the pens,” said the young man, who asked to be identified only as Felix to avoid jeopardizing his chance for a permanent job in the warehouse in New Jersey where he now has a temporary position.

More people are arrested in New York City on charges of possessing small amounts of marijuana than on any other crime on the books. Nearly all are black or Latino males under the age of 25, most with no previous convictions. Many have never been arrested before.

Last year, the police in New York City arrested more than 50,000 people on the marijuana possession charge, New York State Penal Law 221.10, which makes it a misdemeanor to openly possess or burn pot. During the first four months of 2011, the marijuana arrests increased by nearly 20 percent over the same period in 2010, said Harry G. Levine, a sociologist at Queens College who has closely tracked the data.

Under Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, the number of low-level marijuana arrests has exploded. A spokesman for the mayor described the arrests as a way to fight serious crime.

“Hot-spot policing that focuses on the most violent neighborhoods has led to dramatic reductions in violent crime,” Frank Barry, a mayoral aide, wrote in an e-mail. “Marijuana arrests can be an effective tool for suppressing the expansion of street-level drug markets and the corresponding violence.”

Other elected officials in New York are challenging Mr. Bloomberg’s position and are moving to change the law. Hakeem Jeffries, a Democratic member of the State Assembly from Brooklyn, said the arrests were an outgrowth of the aggressive program of stop-and-frisks in nonwhite neighborhoods.

“When these young people are stopped, they’re told, ‘Empty your pockets; show us everything you have,’ ” Mr. Jeffries said. “They take out a small quantity of marijuana, the cuffs are immediately put on. If it remained in their pocket, it would be a violation, like a traffic ticket.

DURING an appearance before a City Council committee in March, the police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, was asked about the arrests by Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito of East Harlem. Mr. Kelly said they helped keep crime low. When Ms. Mark-Viverito raised other questions, he said: “If you think the law is not written correctly, then you should petition the State Legislature to change it. The law clearly says if you have marijuana in public view, you should be arrested. It’s a misdemeanor.”

That led Mr. Jeffries and Mark Grisanti, a Republican senator of Buffalo, to sponsor a bill that would make open possession of small quantities of marijuana a violation, not a misdemeanor.

The mayor, who in the past has acknowledged personally enjoying the use of marijuana, is opposed to the change. “This would encourage smoking in the streets and in our parks, reversing successful efforts to clean up neighborhoods and eliminate the open-air drug markets like we used to find in Washington Square Park,” Mr. Barry said.

He dismissed concerns that records of young people’s arrests would hinder their chances of getting ahead in life. Most marijuana charges for first offenders are dismissed, Mr. Barry said.

“They are not saddled with criminal records because those records are sealed,” he said. Asked if the mayor’s office believed that people who had been arrested but had received a dismissal could honestly answer “No” if they were ever questioned by employers or colleges, Mr. Barry did not directly reply. He said, though, that under New York’s executive law, “employers cannot ask about old arrests.”

The charge against Felix, the young warehouse worker in night court on Monday, would be dismissed if he stayed out of trouble. “I’m glad to get out of there,” he said. “I’ve got to pay the rent by the 15th.”

E-mail: dwyer@nytimes.com

Twitter: @jimdwyernyt

About Erin

Freelance writer and occasional journalist for the global drug user press
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