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The Splitting Image of Pot

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But there they were, down in night court at 100 Centre Street, one marijuana arrestee of color after another, standing before the judge to have their class-B misdemeanor possession case heard.

Legal Aid lawyers defend most of these people. Said one lawyer, “The cops have their areas of concentration when it comes to these violations. Sometimes we’ll get a lot of arrests for so-called trespassing, which often means a person was caught hanging out in front of a project; it doesn’t matter if they live right across the street. But marijuana is very constant, a hardy perennial, you might say, rolling in regularly like the tide. The amounts are almost always tiny, which shows that for all the talk about going after the big guys, cops are mostly arresting low-end users. A lot of people say they were nabbed only minutes after they got the stuff, so it seems as if the cops are just sitting on known spots and busting whoever comes out. Most arrestees will receive an ACD, or ‘adjournment contemplating dismissal,’ a kind of probation. It is rare, but repeaters could get time. At the very least, it messes up your night riding around handcuffed in a paddy wagon.”

Harry Levine, a Queens College sociology professor who has been compiling marijuana arrest figures for years, says, “The cops prefer pot busts. They’re easy, because the people are almost never violent and, as opposed to drunks, hardly ever throw up in the car. Some of this has to do with the reduction in crime over the years. Pot arrests are great for keeping the quota numbers up. These kind of arrests toss people into the system, get their fingerprints on file. The bias of these arrests is in the statistics.”

The NYPD (good luck on getting the Public Information department to respond to your phone calls or e-mails on this particular topic) belittles these charges, saying the arrest stats are “absurdly inflated.”

The kicker in this is the apparently almost unknown fact that possession of 25 grams, or seven-eighths of an ounce—much more than the few joints that are getting people arrested—is not a crime in New York State and has not been since the passage of the Marijuana Reform Act of 1977, or 32 years ago. (Right here add sound of potheads slapping their foreheads, like, how come they didn’t know that?) There are exceptions, however. If the pot is “burning or open to public view,” then the 25-gram deal is off. It is this provision that has been the basis for the arrest outbreak, many civil libertarians contend.

The scenario of what happens on the street, as told to me by several arrestees, is remarkably similar. It goes like this: You’re black, or Spanish, or some white-boy fellow traveler with a cockeyed Bulls cap and falling-down pants. The cops come up to you, usually while you’re in a car, and ask you if you’re doing anything you shouldn’t. You say, “No, officer,” and they say, “You don’t have anything in your pocket you’re not supposed to have, do you, because if you do and I find it, it’ll be a lot worse for you.” It is at that point, because you are young, nervous, possibly simple, and ignorant of the law, you might comply and take the joint you’d been saving out of your pocket. Then, zam: Suddenly, your protection under the Marijuana Reform Act vanishes because the weed is now in “public view.” The handcuffs, the paddy wagon, and the aforementioned court date soon follow.

Now that he is ahead of Rudy’s numbers, Mike Bloomberg, who once famously answered a question from this magazine about his pot use by saying “you bet I did, and I enjoyed it,” has presided over more marijuana busts than any mayor anywhere. This could be compared with the record of another New York City mayor, Fiorello La Guardia, who, in response to the 1937 federal ban on pot, requested a report by the New York Academy of Medicine, which concluded that, contrary to Harry Anslinger’s claim that pot was an “assassin of youth,” marijuana was not medically addictive; not under the control of a single organized group; did not lead to morphine, heroin, or cocaine addiction; and was not the determining factor in the commission of major crimes, and that “publicity concerning the catastrophic effects of marihuana smoking in New York is unfounded.”

Once upon a mid-seventies time, the Yippies, then fronted by downtown immortals Dana Beal and the garbologist A. J. Weberman, staged a pot-legalization march up Fifth Avenue that ended in a rally at the Naumburg Bandshell in Central Park. The big attraction was a giant glass jar filled with joints; anyone picking the number of reefers in the jar would win it. The winner, some shambling longhair troglodyte, broke open the jar and threw the joints into the crowd, prompting a crush toward the stage. Alarmed, Weberman took the microphone and started screaming, “It is only crappy Mexican! Don’t kill yourself for crappy Mexican!”


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