Two stories in The New York Times Wednesday night and Thursday morning brought up two ways that you can get busted for small amounts of marijuana in New York City, where possession of less than seven-eighths of an ounce is supposed to be nothing more than a violation, punishable by a $100 fine. In each, it's not the pot that gets you busted but the circumstances around the pot, and the consequences can be as dire as losing custody of your children.
A City Room blog post from Wednesday night brought news that New York City Council members had introduced a resolution designed to curb persistently numerous illegal searches by police officers. Back in April, WNYC reported in a two-part series that such searches on city streets had increased, and that the searches themselves were creating more serious marijuana infractions. Under state law, simple possession of a small amount of marijuana can be punished by no more than a $100 fine. But if you bring the marijuana out into the open, "the violation becomes a criminal offense," The Times points out, "even when this happens only after the police ask people they stop to empty their pockets or purses." The WNYC study found many reports of police reaching into the pockets of those they stopped on the street and pulling out small amounts of pot.
On Wednesday morning, another Times story reported a disturbing new trend: While the state's marijuana laws don't provide much in the way of criminal punishment, the laws governing child welfare are much harsher on the topic. According to the report, parents who are found with even small amounts of marijuana are frequently stripped of custody of their children under disproportionately harsh standards. "For these parents, the child welfare system has become an alternate system of justice, with legal standards on marijuana that appear to be tougher than those of criminal courts or, to some extent, of society at large," wrote reporter Mosi Secret.
A 2007 study by Queens College professor Harry Levine suggested police had good reason to make small-time marijuana arrests:
People arrested for smoking or possessing marijuana tend to be non-violent, easy to handle, and, in the words of one cop, "clean" – meaning physically clean, not smelly or dirty. This matters because the arresting officer is "married" to the arrestee through the booking process, sometimes for many hours. Because NYPD pay scales are very low, police naturally want overtime work. A marijuana arrest (or other low-level misdemeanor arrest) near the end of a shift guarantees several or more hours of relatively clean, easy overtime. And the officers can use the arrests to show they are being productive.