Last night, BuzzFeed released a gripping video about one New Yorker's harrowing experience of being arrested for marijuana possession. A Marijuana Arrest tells the story of former Manhattan Public School art teacher Alberto Willmore, who recounts how his life was upended after NYPD officers aggressively seized and charged him with marijuana possession. Mr. Willmore immediately lost his teaching job, spent nearly two years fighting the case in court, and – even though the case was thrown out – he was still penalized by his employer, the Department of Education.
New Yorkers are all too familiar with stories like Mr. Willmore's. Since 2002, nearly 500,000 people have been arrested in New York for marijuana possession – the vast majority of those arrests, 440,000, took place in New York City. In 2012 alone in the City, there were nearly 40,000 such arrests, far exceeding the total marijuana arrests in NYC from 1981-1995. The cost to taxpayers is at least $75 million a year, and over $600 million in the last decade, a profound waste of money. A report released earlier this year found that the NYPD had spent one million hours making these arrests over the past decade.
Last month, New York State Attorney General Eric T. Schneiderman released a major new report analyzing NYPD's stop-and-frisk program. The analysis shows that marijuana possession is among the top arrests resulting from stop and frisk. The AG's report highlights the racial bias in the stops and arrests, and outlines the collateral consequences – such as deportation, the loss of housing and student loans, and, as was Mr. Willmore's experience, loss of employment.
In Mr. Willmore's case, he wasn't smoking marijuana – he was smoking a tobacco cigarette. Yet the day after his arrest, he received a letter from the New York Department of Education telling him that he was no longer employed at the school he served as a founding member.
"Since that day of my arrest, I have not seen my classes, any students or staff members," said Mr.Willmore. I miss my school, I miss the staff, I miss the students. It is upsetting to think that I, a founding member of the Ella Baker school, can't go back, all because I was arrested for basically smoking a cigarette and observing my art. That's all I did that day."
New York State decriminalized personal possession of marijuana in 1977, finding that arresting people for small amounts of marijuana "needlessly scars thousands of lives while detracting from the prosecution of serious crimes." But over the last decade, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers have been arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana because of a loophole in the law, which proposed legislation would fix. Last year, a bill was introduced by Governor Andrew Cuomo, and it was sponsored by Brooklyn Assemblymember Karim Camar and co-sponsored by Speaker Sheldon Silver, Codes Committee Chair Joseph Lentol, and nearly every member of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus. The Assembly passed the legislation, but the Senate failed to act.
"Marijuana arrests are the most common arrest in New York City and faulty police tactics that violate constitutional rights have exacerbated this occurrence," said Assembly Member Karim Camara, chair of the Caucus. "These arrests push far too many individuals to the fringes of society, making it harder for them to be productive citizens. Getting or maintaining a job, attaining adequate housing, and attending school are just a few things that are negatively impacted by marijuana arrests. This is an urgent issue of injustice that must be addressed. I will continue working diligently to demand that we pass legislation in Albany to protect New Yorkers like Mr. Willmore, who's story is a powerful reminder of the impact of these broken policies."
City officials and advocates hope that Mr. Willmore's story will add pressure to Mayor Elect de Blasio and incoming Police Commissioner Bratton to publicly announce changes to stop the racially biased, costly, and unconstitutional marijuana arrests in New York City and furthermore demand Albany legislators end the political standoff and pass the statewide legislative fix once and for all.
"We need to take a hard look at policies at the Department of Education and other city agencies," said Council Member Brad Lander. "Thousands of hard working New Yorkers like Mr. Willmore are arrested each year on low-level charges that are eventually dismissed, and far too many of them face automatic job-loss, among other severe and life-changing consequences."
"Being arrested for marijuana possession isn't a mere inconvenience. It can have long-lasting consequences for employment, housing, child custody and other areas of a person's life," said Alfredo Carrasquillo, VOCAL's Civil Rights Organizer. "The NYPD's aggressive and racially biased policing practices have not made us safer, but they have produced tens of thousands of marijuana arrests each year. These arrests have led to hundreds of millions of dollars in policing and court costs and incalculable damage to the lives of hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, mostly Black and Latino youth, who have been unlawfully arrested under the Bloomberg administration."
"Almost 6000 16- and 17-year-olds were prosecuted in adult criminal courts for marijuana misdemeanors in 2010 in New York State," said Alison Wilkey, Director of Policy and Legal Services at Youth Represent. "Even an arrest can cause problems later down the road when a young person applies for a job, an internship, or college. Putting teenagers through the adult courts for marijuana possession just doesn't make sense."
"It's unfortunately common to see marijuana possession arrests leading to this kind of injustice," said Molly Kovel, a attorney at The Bronx Defenders specializing in the civil consequences of arrests. "People lose their jobs when they are arrested for possession of tiny amounts of marijuana – even when they are not ultimately convicted. And the penalties don't stop there – you can lose your housing, your student loans, custody of your kids, and even your greencard, simply for a marijuana misdemeanor."
"When running for office, Bill de Blasio opposed these racist, costly, and unconstitutional marijuana arrests, and now that he's going to be Mayor, he should follow through on this commitment," said Kassandra Frederique, policy coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance. "Albany needs to act, but so too does New York City. This marijuana arrest crusade is leading to people losing their jobs, get separated from their families, and for some, to even lose their lives, as in Ramarley Graham's case. No one should lose their job, their family or their life over a marijuana arrest. The time for justice is now."