Marijuana Arrests in Buffalo Become a Civil Rights Issue

by / Oct. 26, 2015 11am EST

Last week, Canada’s Liberal party scored a major win at the polls with Justin Trudeau, who won the office of prime minster, leading the way. Coming to a Canadian town near you in the very near future: legal marijuana. The Liberal Party’s platform reflects the failures of marijuana prohibition: that it hasn’t worked, it’s expensive to enforce, it’s socially destructive for those nonviolent persons arrested, and it puts power into the hands of potentially violent criminals who act as dealers. 

Those issues of course are not limited by any border.  

On our side of the Niagara, a public hearing will be held on October 28 at 10 am in the Buffalo Common Council Chambers in City Hall, held by Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes and Manhattan State Senator Liz Krueger, to discuss a Colorado-style legalization bill they have co-sponsored in the state legislature. 

Stokes makes an unlikely marijuana rights advocate. She “wouldn’t suggest that anyone would smoke marijuana” and she expresses that she’s “not so sure why Americans are so interested in altering the condition of their mind.” Long a champion of the right to use cannabis medicinally, Stokes is now advocating for legalization in the form of a “marihuana regulation and taxation act.”

So why is she fighting for this bill? Her eyes have been opened in recent years to a criminal justice system that disproportionately impacts people of color, even as studies show that white and black Americans use marijuana equally. 

In Buffalo, which is roughly 50 percent white, 39 percent black, and 10 percent Hispanic, a person who is arrested on a marijuana charge is roughly seven times more likely to be black or Hispanic since 2008. According to data provided by the state to the Buffalo Cannabis Movement and shared with The Public, last year there were 497 lowest-level (PL 221.10) marijuana arrests in Buffalo; 394 of those arrested were black and 33 were Hispanic. In 2013, there were 555 total arrests—456 black and 23 Hispanic. The trend has continued this year: By the end of May 2015 there were 217 total arrests; 180 were black and 11 were Hispanic. 

Possessing less than 25 grams of marijuana in New York State has already been decriminalized, and the first two offense should result in violations, much like parking tickets. The loophole that puts many marijuana users in handcuffs is that if one “unlawfully possesses marihuana in a public place and such marihuana is burning or open to public view,” it’s a misdemeanor. This has come to include cases where a police officer asks a suspect to empty his pockets and a small bag of weed comes into “public view.”

In 2014, there were 504 lowest-level marijuana dispositions in Buffalo City Court; 80 percent (392) of those arrested were individuals under 29, with almost 40 percent (187) between the ages of 21 and 25. 

When those cases came to court, whites had a 74 percent dismissal rate, with 54 dismissals in 73 cases. Blacks, on the other hand, had only 42 percent of lowest-level marijuana possession charges dismissed (164 out of 391). Hispanics fared slight better, but still not at the clip of whites, achieving 15 dismissals in 32 cases. 

When it comes to spending time behind bars, the scale tips even more askew. In 2014, 60 people served jail time for lowest-level marijuana offenses; 40 of them were between the ages of 16 and 25, and only one was white. 

There are a number of negative consequences associated with these arrests: Students with drug convictions can’t receive PELL grants to attend college, can’t reside in public housing (thus creating homelessness for some), and face a much harder time finding work. 

“It is a civil rights issue,” Peoples-Stokes says. “If it’s against the law, then it should be enforced with everybody, and it it’s not going to be enforced with everybody, it shouldn’t be enforced with anybody. I would say yes, it is a civil rights issues, particularly when you think about the amount of resources it takes to incarcerate people for non-violent crimes.”

The Buffalo Cannabis Movement has been a vocal presence in City Hall over the past several years. Many of its members put down their activist roots in the Occupy Buffalo movement that encamped on Niagara Square in 2011 and 2012. A resolution the group crafted to make marijuana a “lowest police priority” has been referred to the city’s Police Oversight Committee, while an earlier resolution calling on the state to reevaluate and expedite its medical marijuana program was endorsed by the Common Council earlier this month. 

In New York City, after seeing lowest-level marijuana arrests spike from 5,700 in 1995 to 50,700 in 2011, the city enacted a similar policy in November 2014, resulting in an immediate 75 percent drop in arrests

But New York City and Buffalo should not feel so all alone. Marijuana arrests and the communities they affect have been steadily growing lopsided over the past 20 years throughout the country. This was the subject of a comprehensive ACLU report called “The War on Marijuana in Black and White.” The 2013 report concludes with the following:

“Like America’s larger War on Drugs, America’s War on Marijuana has been a failure. The aggressive enforcement of marijuana possession laws needlessly ensnares hundreds of thousands of people in the criminal justice system, crowds our jails, is carried out in a racially biased manner, wastes millions of taxpayers’ dollars and has not reduced marijuana use or availability. Marijuana possession arrests also waste precious police resources and divert law enforcement from responding to and solving serious crimes. It is time for marijuana possession arrests to end.”

Event organizers PUSH Buffalo and the Drug Policy Alliance hope to “pack the room” in the chambers this Wednesday, and illustrate the state’s damaging drug laws with speakers and testimony about the unintended casualties in what they see as the nation’s misguided war on drugs.