NYC is known for it’s harsh marijuana laws. Possession with the intent to sell any amount is an automatic felony. The same law applies, surprisingly, to the historic bastion of weed (or at least in the public’s imagination) – California. Yet a further investigation shows that marijuana laws are severely punitive to a very (or as Californians would say, hella) specific population. Black and Latino people.
Summer in Bushwick.
Two husky men stand in the doorway. They look like they trying real hard to be nondescript. My black senses tingle something harsh. Cops.
“You got weed in here huh, don’t ya’ll?” He says, his voice booming off our yellowing white walls.
They unapologetically shove my roommate aside to enter our typical Bushwick apartment, a railroad style two-bedroom. Her dreadlocks bounce as she stumbles back. The M train rattles in the foreground. Whatever high I have comes tumbling down. One of their radios goes off. All we hear is a slur of static. One of the officers says some numbers into it. A, “Copy” and an “OK – reinforcements coming” spill out of the walkie-talkie. There are five of us in the apartment, now seven, with an undisclosed amount of back up apparently en route.
We are bum rushed with a barrage of questions.
“Who lives here?”
“Any one underage?”
“Where the fuck is the weed?”
Other comments are thrown in.
“I swear if you fuckers lie to me I’m going to make your life hell.”
“We can do this the easy way or the hard way.”
“We’ve set up surveillance on your apartment.”
We feel like we are in a bad cop movie. My roommate cautiously responds.
“Just me and him.”
“We are all over 21.”
“We don’t have any.”
And in a barely audible whisper, “It already is bruh.”
They handcuff my roommate, our three friends and I. Humid gusts of garbage cooking under the brutal august sun blow into our apartment slapping our noses. The cold steel cools our warm and sweaty wrists. The police officers begin to search every crevice of our apartment – our home and sanctuary in this crowded and loud city – a home we struggle so hard to keep, every rent check a supreme struggle. My mind weighs the options of arguing, resisting, they need a warrant, you can’t just barge in like that, handcuff us, harass us, speak to us in the most disrespectful of ways and search our belongings. But I knew, all too well, they could, would, and are doing just that, and could possibly do much more if I pointed out the questionable legality of their actions. I can almost hear my mom pleading in broken English, “Please, do what they say you have do, obey them. Son, I love you. You know how they treat boy look like you. Black boy. I no want to see you hurt for them. Don’t move so fast. Be very slow. Don’t raise your voice. Don’t argue. Don’t. Don’t. Don’t.”
At a news conference this past Monday Bill Bratton, NYPD Police Commissioner and proponent of broken windows policing, while holding a small but apparently deadly bag of oregano looking marijuana (just holding real weed makes you instantly addicted), attributed this year’s slight increase in murders to the THC laden plant. The city has seen 54 murders in 2015 in comparison to 45 this time last year. Bratton says:
“The seemingly innocent drug that’s been legalized around the country. In this city, people are killing each other over marijuana more so than anything that we had to deal with [in the] 80s and 90s with heroin and cocaine…”
The NYPD’s Chief of Detectives, Robert Boyce, claimed that approximately 15% of homicides in the city were due to drug robberies. Most, he said, were “Rip-offs of marijuana dealers, robberies.” The comments which reference the “80s and 90s” or the “bad old days of NYC” appear disingenuous. 1990 saw 2,245 murders in the city. There were 328 in 2014.
Marijuana is the most consumed drug across the U.S. and NYC, yet it’s consumption and distribution is illegal or severely restricted in most states despite study after study pointing to the relative safety of cannabis, especially when compared to alcohol, tobacco, or other drugs. All of which have higher rates of death, medicalization and overall negative social consequences. The sole negative consequence of marijuana, besides being sleepy, talkative, not-talkative, slow, developing temporary cotton mouth, having delusions of creativity and getting the munchies, is that of the brutal violence that surrounds the illegal trade of the drug.
About a week ago, Arthur Mondella owner of Maraschino Cherries in Red Hook, a Walter White like figure, was discovered to be operating a massive marijuana growing operation within the warehouse of his successful business – the largest ever discovered in NYC. Through a locked bathroom door Mondella yelled, “Take care of my Kids!” and committed suicide. He used a .357 magnum he kept hidden in his ankle. Across the city in Corona, Queens a teenager’s violent robbery spree, supposedly to pay for fines acquired from marijuana possession, has also made headlines.
In 1920, a wave of violence also followed the prohibition of another popular and widely used substance – Alcohol. Albert Einstein, the famed German physicist (E=MC2 dude) noted on his arrival to the states in 1921:
“The prestige of government has undoubtedly been lowered considerably by the prohibition law. For nothing is more destructive of respect for the government and the law of the land than passing laws which cannot be enforced. It is an open secret that the dangerous increase of crime in this country is closely connected with this.”
Interestingly, Einstein a self-declared anti-racist joined the NAACP and campaigned for civil rights. He understood racism to be America’s, “worst disease.”
Statistics focusing on NYC complied by the Marijuana Arrest Research Project in a report entitled Race, Class & Marijuana Arrests in Mayor DeBlasio’s Two New Yorks indicates, “In the first eight months of 2014, 86% of the people arrested for marijuana possession were blacks and Latinos, 10% were whites, and 4% were all others.”
The report continues, “blacks [are arrested by NYPD] at 7 times the rate of whites and Latinos at nearly 4 times the rate of whites. But young whites use marijuana at higher rates than young blacks and Latinos.”
With our neighbors peering out their windows, we were marched out of the apartment and into an unmarked white van. We spent several hours in a holding cell, with no word on our charges or the timeline of our release. Although the charges were dropped after a court appearance, the degrading experience could not be erased from our minds with the swing of a gavel by a man in black robes.