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Marijuana and a New York State of Mind

Why aren’t more progressive-oriented states legalizing marijuana? A look at how New York state’s police departments – and legislative candidates – are funded may provide a clue.

Marijuana.(Photo: Sandra Nahdi / Flickr)When it comes to marijuana legalization, politicians in New York are feeling the pressure. Colorado is currently unveiling the world’s first nonmedical, state-regulated cannabis industry, other states legislatures are displaying signs of following in its footsteps, and public opinion has shifted to heavily favor changing laws around pot. At long last, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo performed a complete 180 on the issue of medical cannabis last week, announcing plans to allow 20 hospitals statewide to prescribe the plant. A year earlier, he’d vowed to veto any such legislation. (This previous position is not out of sync with New York’s overall practices regarding marijuana: City police arrest more people for pot possession than any other crime.)

The governor’s change of heart comes on the heels of a more progressive bill introduced in December by Senator Liz Krueger, which calls for the complete legalization of cannabis in New York and the formation of an industry similar to the nascent one in Colorado. According to two different polls, majorities of New Yorkers favor both measures.

Yet as many New York legislators push for a reorientation, a cadre of conservative drug warriors in the senate have positioned themselves firmly against any adjustment of antiquated marijuana laws – even when these changes would save the state money on costs of incarceration and allot police attention to more pressing matters.

New York’s marijuana prohibition history is rife with contradictions. In 1977, the state legislature ostensibly reduced the penalty for carrying 25 grams or less of marijuana to a noncriminal violation. However, this longstanding policy hasn’t resulted in fewer arrests: Nearly 40,000 people in New York City alone were arrested for possession in 2012, the vast majority black and Latino. That same year, in a bizarre case of déjà-vu, the New York legislature considered a bill to decriminalize the possession of cannabis – implicitly admitting the impotence of the former measure – only for the legislation to be killed.

Why, despite an evolving national temperament on cannabis, have New York legislators remained so stubborn on the issue? And why have most states lagged so far behind public opinion in their efforts to roll back marijuana bans? To answer this question, it is necessary to examine a federal law passed by the US Congress in the 1980s that gave law enforcement agencies everywhere a moneyed interest in perpetuating all aspects of the war on drugs, including marijuana prohibition.

Policing for Profit

In the waning days of President Ronald Reagan’s tenure, Congress bolstered its quixotic mission to eradicate drug usage by doubling down on its financial commitment to local law enforcement. This measure, called the Byrne Memorial State and Local Law Enforcement Assistance Program, encouraged agencies across the country to put more resources toward drug policy enforcement, in return for more cash and equipment from the federal government. As Michelle Alexander explains in her book, The New Jim Crow, “This money . . . resulted in the proliferation of narcotics task forces, including those responsible for highway drug interdiction.”

Under the program, states and municipalities compete for the funds by submitting yearly applications to the federal government. Although the funds can be put toward several different functions, including drug treatment, nearly three-quarters of all awarded funds go generally toward “law enforcement” for drug enforcement purposes. From Eric Blumenson and Eva Nilsen, authors of Policing for Profit: The Drug War’s Hidden Economic Agenda:

Byrne grant recipients are required to use these funds to fight the war on drugs. The Byrne Program is now the primary federal program that funds the state and local war on drugs . . . Byrne grants have altered the law enforcement landscape . . . most notably in the proliferation of multijurisdictional drug task forces, now collectively the largest funding category in the federal aid program.

The money isn’t apportioned to strict categories. “[With Byrne grant money, the police] can buy all kinds of stuff – police cars, bullet proof vests, computers, bullets, overtime – buy whatever they want,” said Harry Levine, a sociology professor at Queens College, CUNY and coauthor of Marijuana Arrest Crusade, in a conversation with Truthout. However, Levine explained, every police department that receives Byrne grants must file a report to the federal government at the end of each year “showing what it is they have done with the Byrne grant money to reduce the drug problem.” Although none of these reports are available for public review, from the ones that Levine has seen, police departments across the country report their drug busts not by type or even charge, but crudely, “by the pound.” That means what matters most for a local police department to secure precious federal dollars is the raw volume of narcotics seized, a figure fattened by marijuana arrests, which account for 52 percent of all drug arrests nationwide.

The basic financing scheme for drug law enforcement has not changed significantly since Blumenson and Nilsen published their report in 1998 – in fact, it is more intimately woven into the budgetary considerations of local precincts than ever before, especially after President Obama infused the Byrne grant program with $2 billion dollars as part of his signature recovery act in 2009. After eight years of dwindling funds for the program under President Bush, the current president reinvigorated it, and by extension, renewed the commitment of New York law enforcement agencies to the drug war – most recently with a $25 million reward in 2012.

Byrned in New York

Of the millions in grant money doled out to New York law enforcement two years ago, nearly $10 million went to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services. The division’s application for the funds notes that the state legislature has the responsibility of handing out two-thirds of the money to local law enforcement. The Byrne grant application implies an expectation of consistent funding within the state’s law enforcement agencies:

It is expected that both houses will continue to be responsive to constituent demands and needs and will fund a broad array of programs consistent with their longstanding patterns.

One of the most pervasive “patterns” in the way New York polices its communities is how large a portion of overall arrests is comprised of marijuana arrests year after year. In 2010, the last year for which data is available, over 100,000 arrests were made throughout the state for mere possession of marijuana – a charge that accounts for, incredibly, about a quarter of all misdemeanor arrests in the state that year. Marijuana possession arrests are far and away the most frequent charge meted out by New York police, and the rate has steadily increased since 2001, indicating that law enforcement agencies have integrated a program for marijuana persecution as part of their overall strategy to sustain Byrne grant funds.

There is a dearth of available public information to confirm whether or not high numbers of marijuana arrests are used by local law enforcement to solicit bigger grants from the federal government, but a strong inference can be made with what information is available. Particularly suggestive are the ties of anti-marijuana legislators in the New York Senate to policing lobbies.

Marijuana Crusaders

When Democrats in the New York State Assembly passed a bill in early 2012 to decriminalize possession of up to 25 grams of marijuana – the same amount that had already been “decriminalized” 35 years earlier – Senator Greg Ball was aghast.

“In a community where we have children dying from drugs and alcohol it is simply unconscionable that any legislator would even consider decriminalizing marijuana,” he stated in a press statement at the time. Aside from his concern for the children, Senator Ball has another stake in the drug war: He receives thousands of dollars in financial backing from the Police Association of Yonkers, the union representing the local agency awarded $155,521 in Byrne grant money in 2012.

It is difficult to confirm whether the number of marijuana arrests resolutely determines the federal rewards accrued by the city of Yonkers, but considering that misdemeanor drug charges were the city’s highest registered charge that year, it’s not far-fetched to assume that marijuana arrests are part of the department’s “longstanding pattern” for which it collects Byrne money.

Senator Ball is not alone in his backing from policing lobbies with a financial interest in sustaining marijuana prohibition. Senator Dean Skelos, the majority leader in the Senate, also opposed the measure, citing an absurd fear of New Yorkers “walk[ing] around with 10 joints in their ear.” Skelos received $10,000 in campaign finances from the New York Police Investigators Association, a collective of investigators spread out across the state who also gave a significant sum of money to drug warrior and former sheriff Senator Patrick Gullivan.

Public records reveal that nearly all of the Republicans who opposed the 2012 bill to decriminalize small amounts of cannabis receive backing from state law enforcement unions. Senator John Flanagan receives thousands of dollars from multiple police unions, as does Senator Kemp Hannon, Senator Thomas Libous, Senator Joseph Robach, Senator Thomas O’Mara, Senator Andrew Lanza, Senator Martin Gold, and Senator George Maziarz.

As for senate Democrats, many representing poorer urban communities most affected by marijuana sentencing laws, the majority supported the decriminalization bill. None have the sort of deep ties to policing unions that senate Republicans have, although not all on the right are beholden to these groups – Republican Mark Grisanti was one of the lead champions of the measure, remarking that the bill would alleviate the “racial disparities” surrounding possession charges in New York. Grisanti is distinct from his fellow conservatives in that he receives no campaign financing funding from unions representing law enforcement agencies.

With the Senate GOP so firmly opposed to a decriminalization bill that did nothing but parrot the terms of an already-existing law, it goes without saying that they reacted to Senator Liz Krueger’s December bill, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, with outright patronization. “We’re focused on cutting taxes to create new jobs . . . Senate Democrats, it would appear, have other priorities,” said Senate GOP spokesman Scott Reiff. (The bill would, in fact, correct a policy that has “led to hundreds of millions of [tax] dollars in policing and court costs and incalculable damage to the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers,” in the words of civil rights organizer Alfredo Carrasquillo.)

Yet no matter how well articulated the benefits of marijuana legalization – or even modest decriminalization – are, conservative senators in New York will have their judgment clouded by monetary incentives that can be traced back to the federal government’s complex drug war financing scheme. For a look at how deeply this dynamic can affect state drug policy, one needs to look at the handful of Western states that have attempted to rescind cannabis prohibition in recent years.

In 2010, California considered a measure to legalize, tax and regulate marijuana through an industry model similar to the one now active in Colorado. The measure failed to pass, and much of the opposition can be traced to a well-financed opposition campaign headed by a police association lobbyist named John Lovell. According to Republic Report, “Lovell’s [lobbying] firm was paid over $386,350 from a wide array of police associations,” and the measure ultimately failed to garner enough votes in the state. The California Police Chief Association spent more than any other group to finance the defeat of Proposition 19.

Similarly, in Colorado, 13 law enforcement groups allied themselves with Smart Colorado, a group that spearheaded opposition to Amendment 64, the bill that legalized cannabis. In Washington, where Initiative 502 passed the same day as its twin measure in Colorado, the Council of Metropolitan Police and Sheriffs (COMPAS) a major police lobby in the state, had publicly endorsed unsuccessful gubernatorial candidate (and major marijuana opponent) Rob McKenna for governor in 2012. However, police unions in Washington were noticeably less zealous in their fight against reform, owing to the sense of doom that permeated through precincts on the eve of the legislation’s passage.

“My opinion is everybody’s running for political cover on this because they think it’s going to pass,” said Spokane County Sheriff Ozzie Knezovich to The Spokesman-Review at the time. Most of the Sheriff’s colleagues were silent on the issue, and the opposition campaign received significantly less financing than the one to propose it – which may be indicative of how popular pressure can trump money-driven political motives.

As Albany moves quickly on two new pot initiatives this year, it is likely that New Yorkers will continue to relax their disposition toward cannabis, especially if the experiments in other states continue to unfold without a hitch. Unlike many lawmakers in the state senate, voters do not have a moneyed incentive to oppose drug reform – in fact, reforming marijuana laws is likely to save them about $430 million annually in New York City alone, according to a report by the city’s Comptroller’s Office. While federal grant money compels state police agencies to string along senators like drug-warrior marionettes, the free-moving zeitgeist will go where it wishes, and if that happens to be away from the draconian pot laws of the past, then lawmakers will have no alternative but to catch up.

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