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Pot busts in New York City are finally on the decline, but it’s not safe for users to exhale just yet. Carrying a small amount of weed is still the most common reason for arrest in the city, and more people are busted for it here than almost anywhere else.

According to the Associated Press, arrests for simple possession dropped by 22 percent between 2011 and 2012 – from more than 50,000 to about 40,000. New York State decriminalized possession of small amounts of pot more than 30 years ago, but quirks in the law still make it possible for police to harass medicinal and other marijuana users.

Possession of Marijuana in NYC

Possessing less than 25 grams (slightly less than an ounce) isn’t considered a crime, as long as it’s kept out of public view and police don’t see it burning. This is the equivalent of a traffic ticket, and the most serious penalty is a $100 fine.

But weed arrests have often been made during so-called “stop and frisks,” a tactic of the New York Police Department that can force marijuana into public view and turn simple possession into a crime. The department has cut back on those arrests and promised to change how marijuana possession is treated during them, but pot busts are still up eighteen-fold over their levels in the late 1990s.

Stop and Frisks Law and Marijuana

The stop and frisk is a constitutional gray area. Police are allowed to stop a person on the street without probable cause as long as they have “reasonable suspicion” to believe the person is involved in a crime. They cannot arrest the person without probable cause, however, and they cannot search the person – unless they reasonably suspect the person is carrying a weapon.

The problem arises in that many police use these searches to uncover additional items a person may be carrying, including marijuana, and then use that to make an arrest. The frisk is supposed to focus only on potential weapons, but anything else police find along the way is fair game.

In many of these cases, police have blurred the line even further by asking the people who are stopped to empty their pockets voluntarily. When they do, the weed is in “public view” and they’re subject to arrest, fines and jail time. At the least, they’re likely to get a mark on their criminal records.

City officials promised last year to reduce the number of stop and frisks, and they dropped by more than 20 percent last year.  New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly also vowed to stop charging people who openly exposed their pot at the request or order of the police, and the NYPD agreed to stop holding arrestees overnight for low-level possession.

But New York has a very long way to go. It still has one of the highest marijuana arrest rates in the world.

According to numbers released by the Drug Policy Alliance, Mayor Michael Bloomberg is the king of marijuana enforcers. The police under his administration have made more marijuana busts than the last three mayors combined – 227,093 in the four years between 2007 and 2011, compared to 226,861 in the 23 years between 1978 and 2001.

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About the Author: Matt Brooks

Matt is a journalist from San Francisco who has specialized in marijuana policy for more than six years.

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