While the state of New York decriminalized marijuana possession for personal use in 2019, its capital, Albany, has been reserving marijuana arrests and tickets pretty much exclusively for Black residents. According to an analysis of police department data between July 2019 and July 2020, Black people were subject to 97 percent of cannabis arrests or citations during that time. The city’s population, per the 2010 census, is just 27 percent Black.
The analysis, by the Times Union, looked at 134 arrests or citations for marijuana over the 12-month period. More than half of the incidents were citations for unlawful possession of marijuana, considered a violation. Then 24 percent were misdemeanors, while 19 percent were felonies—for possession of at least eight ounces. Under New York state’s marijuana decriminalization law, any amount under one ounce is fined up to $50, while amounts between one and two ounces are fined up to $200.
Albany County District Attorney David Soares announced in November 2018 that his office would no longer prosecute possession cases of under two ounces, if that is the defendant’s only charge. But he emphasized that public marijuana use, using around children and driving under the influence would still be penalized.
Albany Police Chief Eric Hawkins, who is Black, said he would look into the enormous disparity, claiming that violent-crime and quality-of-life investigations were behind many arrests. “It’s always concering when you see that all of the arrests were Black males,” he told the Times Union. “We’re not stopping young men in the community and writing them minor possession of marijuana tickets, it’s just not happening. I’m not seeing that these young men are being targeted but it’s concerning to me that they are the ones who are impacted by this.”
The Times Union analysis doesn’t strongly support that explanation. Police data indicate that nearly nine in 10 marijuana arrests were related to calls for an unspecified crime in progress. And a recent increase in the city’s violent crime rate has not resulted in a corresponding spike in marijuana arrests.
The New York Civil Liberties Union also analyzed racial disparities in the state’s marijuana arrests last year, finding that from 2000-2018, Black residents were 14 times more likely than whites to be arrested with a marijuana-law violation as their top charge. National data indicate that Black and white people use cannabis at roughly equal rates.
Under Governor Andrew Cuomo’s leadership, New York state has twice recently failed to legalize marijuana for adult use. A legalization bill failed in spring 2019 after lawmakers failed to reach a consensus on how tax money would be spent. And this year, a second legalization push sputtered out, with lawmakers blaming the need to focus on the pandemic.
Legalization in New York would be unlikely to eliminate racial disparities in marijuana arrests, as other states’ experiences have shown. However, legalization is more effective than decriminalization at driving down the total number of marijuana arrests. In Albany and elsewhere, that would benefit the Black residents who are overwhelmingly subjected to them.