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Racial disparities found in marijuana charges

If you are black and stopped by police in Niagara County, you are 7.5 times more likely to be arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession than if you are white.

If you are black and in Erie County, the likelihood of being charged is 5.6 times greater than if you are white.

In both counties, that represents a substantial “racial disparity” in how the law is applied, according to a New York Civil Liberties Union report released Thursday.

The main target of the report is the New York City Police Department’s controversial “stop and frisk” policy, which is being challenged in U.S. District Court for alleged unconstitutional stops and racial profiling.

But statewide, young men of color are more likely than their white counterparts to be charged with misdemeanor pot possession, said NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman in unveiling the findings.

“It’s not just the New York City Police Department that has a marijuana problem, but police departments all across the state, from Buffalo to Binghamton. Huge racial disparities exist in counties throughout the state,” Lieberman said. “Statewide, blacks are 4.5 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana.”

Local police officials willing to comment on the study – some did not return phone calls seeking comment – said marijuana laws are enforced regardless of race and that high-crime neighborhoods where more police are assigned may contribute to the high ratio.

To undo the disparity, Lieberman called on the State Senate to move forward with a bill already approved by the Assembly that would further decriminalize small amounts of marijuana that inadvertently become publicly displayed when police stop and frisk individuals or order suspects to empty their pockets.

Possessing a small amount of pot that is not in public view was decriminalized by the state in 1977. It dropped to a violation similar to a traffic summons.

And while blacks downstate in Brooklyn and Manhattan are at least nine times more likely to be arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession than whites, Lieberman said blacks across the state are arrested in greater numbers than whites on the charge, even though there are more white residents in the state and surveys show young white males use marijuana more often than young black men.

The ratios, she said, are based on 2010 FBI crime statistics.

In Buffalo, the stop-and-frisk approach is not used by officers, according to Buffalo Police Commissioner Daniel Derenda.

He said a number of factors could contribute to blacks being more likely to be arrested on pot charges.

“I don’t know what the numbers are for marijuana arrests in Buffalo or the racial breakdown, but some of the poorer neighborhoods in the city are disproportionately minority, and due to economic circumstances in some of those areas, there are unfortunately higher crime rates, and that leads to a larger police presence and at times more arrests across the board, including charges for minor offenses,” Derenda said.

Erie County Undersheriff Mark N. Wipperman said that while he cannot address the policies of other police agencies, the Sheriff’s Office never uses race as a factor in enforcing laws.

“We don’t use race as a determination or a standard in making an arrest, including marijuana laws,” he said. “A lot of marijuana arrests do not involve incarceration. The person is given an appearance ticket. The marijuana is confiscated and properly destroyed,” Wipperman said.

Cheektowaga Police Capt. James J. Speyer offered an assurance that his department also does not carry out arrests based on race or any factors other than criminal activity.

In expressing surprise over the ratio, Speyer said that he would want to review the study before offering an opinion but added, “I’d like to know what the circumstances were leading up to the charge.”

Niagara Falls police and Niagara County sheriff’s officials did not return phone calls seeking their response to the study.

Lieberman said there is another travesty occurring in enforcing pot possession laws – the amount of public funds spent by the criminal-justice system.

A study by the NYCLU’s parent organization, the American Civil Liberties Union, estimates that in 2010 a total of $678.5 million in New York taxpayer money was spent on arrests and court costs to adjudicate misdemeanor pot charges.

But the greater harm, she said, is the unequal enforcement of the law along racial lines.

“Arresting and jailing thousands of people for possessing small amounts of marijuana does not make safer streets. It only needlessly disrupts people’s lives and fosters distrust between the police and the communities they are sworn to serve,” Lieberman said.

Gabriel Sayegh, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance in Manhattan, pointed out that young white men have demonstrated significantly higher involvement in using and selling marijuana than young men of color based on surveys conducted over the years.

He also cited a study by Human Rights Watch that analyzed thousands of marijuana arrests over a number of years and determined that individuals arrested for misdemeanor marijuana possession rarely go on to commit violent criminal acts.

The highest ratios involving blacks being more likely to be arrested than whites occurred in counties with large urban centers, but the study also found that in 61 of the state’s 62 counties, blacks were more likely to face pot possession charges.

“There may be more police in so-called high-crime neighborhoods, but that doesn’t explain to us that in overwhelmingly white neighborhoods, the disparity of arrests continues,” Lieberman said.

Because there is no category in FBI crime reporting forms for Hispanics arrested for possession of marijuana, those individuals are included with whites arrested on the pot charge, the NYCLU said. If Hispanics were not grouped with whites, civil liberties officials said, the disparity between blacks being arrested more frequently than whites would be even more imbalanced.

Civil liberties officials called on State Senate leaders Dean Skelos, a Republican, and Jeffrey Klein, a Democrat, to move the bill forward decriminalizing public possession of small amounts of marijuana, adding that smoking pot in public would still remain a crime.