INTRO: Senator Chuck Schumer recently announced a bill to decriminalize marijuana across the country. And in New York, gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon, public advocate Letitia James and other politicians are calling for legalization. At the core of their position is the idea that marijuana prohibition mainly hurts communities of color. That’s something activists have been claiming for a long time. Juliette Jabkhiro has more.
JABKHIRO 1: Anthony Posada was 17 when NYPD officers stopped him in the streets of Jackson Heights, Queens
POSADA 1: The officers have their guns in my face, and I’m worried about the guns going off, and they’re saying ‘Where are the drugs?’ and they’re going into my pockets and they’re searching them.. They finally come and find a bag that I had, inside of one of the pockets inside my jacket, and they say ‘Ah, here it is! Marijuana, we’ve found it, we got you!’
JABKHIRO 2: Another Latino teenager arrested for marijuana possession. Posada says the cops handcuffed him, and took him to the local precinct. That was the beginning of a long wait
POSADA 2: I felt crushed. It was a moment where I noticed the immense power that is in the hands of the police, and I felt bullied, belittled, humiliated
JABKHIRO 3: But the worse part, according to Posada, was when they took him to court. The judge gave him a year of probation. His case would remain open. That meant he could not apply for college
POSADA 3: I’m not born into wealth, my family is first generation immigrants in this country, I’m the first one to graduate from high school.. So, financial aid was crucial
JABKHIRO 4: To get federal funding for college, you have to fill out a form. And you have to check a box if you have been convicted of a drug related offense. If you check that box, you’re not getting any funding. Posada was lucky. After one year of probation, the judge dismissed his charges. He went to college, and after that, to law school. But many never get that chance. And that kind of arrest is common in New York
ALEXANDER 1: Most of the arrests that we have here in New York are for very low level possessions, for, you know, small amount of marijuana
JABKHIRO 5: That’s Christopher Alexander. He works with the Drug Policy Alliance, a non profit that advocates for legalization.
ALEXANDER 2: People don’t end up going to jail for that, as much as they end up getting, you know arrest, and held overnight, and then released, but the record stays
JABKHIRO 5: Alexander says the problem with marijuana prohibition, is that it gives police officers an easy excuse to arrest people
ALEXANDER 3: Since this plant is prohibited, and since so many people use this plant, it is easy for law enforcement to come in to somebody and say ‘Ok well, I smell marijuana. Now I wanna search you’, or ‘I thought I saw you smoking marijuana, I wanna ask you questions’
JABKHIRO 6: And in New York, smelling weed is not rare..
ALEXANDER 4: And the smell is everywhere, so (laugh) So, you know, it’s a problem, yeah
JABKHIRO 7: But even though marijuana is widely used by New Yorkers of all origins, the arrests seem to be targeted at certain communities. Roy Gadsden is a former police officer, and he’s with the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People
GADSDEN 1: We have white folks also engaged in marijuana possession, we don’t see these people getting arrested
JABKHIRO 8: The people getting arrested are people of color. Last year, they were making up to 86 percent of the people arrested for marijuana possession in the fifth degree in New York, according to NYPD data. For Gloria Browne-Marshall, law professor at John Jay College, there is nothing new about that
BROWNE-MARSHALL 1: When it comes to marijuana, yes, there is historical disparate treatment when it comes to people of color, and African Americans and Latinos in particular
JABKHIRO 9: And there is another problem. For Browne-Marshall, it’s not just about stopping the arrests. It’s about what’s going to happen for people who have already been arrested or convicted
BROWNE-MARSHALL 2: I want to know whether or not those people who have records for possession of marijuana are gonna have those records expunged
JABKHIRO 10: Because once it becomes legal, marijuana can be a very lucrative business. And so far, according to a recent survey conducted by Marijuana Business Daily, more than 80% of marijuana businesses in the country are owned by white people. Browne-Marshall says that’s an another proof of the gap that exists between communities
BROWNE-MARSHALL 3: You have people who have records for possession of marijuana, and can’t get jobs, can’t go to certain schools, you know, can’t get loans for schools, etc, because they have a drug crime on their record, and at the same time you have people making millions up on billions of dollars off of marijuana
JABKHIRO 11: For her, and for Anthony Posada, the lawyer who was arrested when he was a teenager, the most urgent thing is to help those who already have arrest records
POSADA 4: You know how many thousands of people are walking around with marijuana convictions, who cannot move on with their life?
JABKHIRO 12: Governor Cuomo has announced that the State Department of Health is currently studying the legalization of marijuana in New York state. No word yet on arrest record. AndT there is no official date for the release of the results.
Juliette Jabkhiro, Columbia Radio News.