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New Report Shows Persistent Racial Disparities and Economic Impacts in [Cannabis] Arrests Across New York

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Higher COVID-19 Positivity Rates Were Found in Higher [Cannabis] Arrest Zip Codes in Four City-Level Case Studies

Report from Drug Policy Alliance & the Public Science Project Highlights the Need for Community Reinvestment and Social Equity in Marijuana Legalization Bill

March 17, 2021 – New York, NY – A new report released today by the Drug Policy Alliance and the Public Science Project at the Graduate Center, CUNY, Inequitable Marijuana Criminalization, COVID-19, and Socioeconomic Disparities: The Case for Community Reinvestment in New York, shows deep racial disparities and economic impacts in [cannabis] arrests across the state of New York. Four specific case studies document how, despite regional differences, people of color in New York City, New Rochelle, Syracuse, and Buffalo are consistently over-represented in [cannabis] arrests, and areas with the highest [cannabis] arrest rates also tend to have proportionally larger populations of color, according to the report. Across all cities, there were also higher COVID-19 positivity rates among the high [cannabis] arrest zip codes compared to the low [cannabis] arrest zip codes.

“The enforcement of [cannabis] prohibition has devastated communities across New York State, primarily communities of color and low-income communities. There have been more than 800,000 arrests for low-level [cannabis] just in the last 25 years alone in New York, with extreme racial disparities – despite data showing similar rates of use and sale across racial and ethnic populations,” said Melissa Moore, New York State Director, Drug Policy Alliance. “In light of this new report, New York has the opportunity to pass the most ambitious [cannabis] legalization bill in the country, setting the national model for [cannabis] legalization by centering reinvestment, equity, and justice within our comprehensive reform. Let’s get this done right.”

In each city, selected to represent different regions, as well as economic, educational, and racial diversity within the state, the average poverty rate was significantly higher among the high [cannabis] arrest zip codes and the high [cannabis] arrest zip codes consistently have nearly half the median household income of the low [cannabis] arrest zip codes – except for New Rochelle, where the disparity is even greater. The average percentage of families receiving SNAP (Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program) in high [cannabis] arrest zip codes was at least three times greater than in low [cannabis] arrest zip codes. In addition, every high [cannabis] arrest zip code had both lower rates of home ownerships and lower median home values than low [cannabis] arrest zip codes.

  • In Buffalo, the average [cannabis] arrest rate among the high [cannabis] arrest zip codes is 68 times higher than that of the low arrest zip codes, and there were 3 times as many [cannabis] arrests of Black people as there were of white people.
  • In Syracuse, the average [cannabis] arrest rate among the high [cannabis] arrest zip codes is 8.8 times higher than that of the low arrest zip codes and there were 4 times as many arrests of Black, Asian, and Native American people as there were of white people between 2010-2020, with Black people comprising 80% of all [cannabis] arrests.
  • In New Rochelle, the arrest rate in the high [cannabis] arrest zip code is 7.5 times more than the low arrest zip code and Black people comprise 45.8% of all [cannabis] arrests between 2018-Jan 2021 despite being 20.1% of New Rochelle’s population.
  • In NYC, the average [cannabis] arrest rate among the high [cannabis] arrest precincts is 15 times higher than that of the low [cannabis] arrest precincts. In [cannabis] arrests between 2010 and August of 2019, there were 8 times as many arrests of Black and Latino people as there were of white people.

The extreme racial disparities in New York’s [cannabis] arrest crusade, as detailed in the case studies in this report, are the result of targeted criminalization and structural racism – and the same factors that have driven the [cannabis] arrest crusade have also resulted in generational wealth impacts. Now, as this report shows, there are also extreme disparities in the impact of COVID-19 in the same neighborhoods.

“Legalizing [cannabis] cannot be done justly in New York without an adequate plan for atonement for the devastation caused to Black and Brown people during the decades-long war on drugs,” said Stanley Fritz, Political Director at Citizen Action of New York. “This report makes clear the link between being a person of color, economic status and mass criminalization. The consequence for our community is disproportionate deaths, infection rates, joblessness and housing insecurity during the pandemic. Legislators will miss the mark to pass truly equitable legislation if they do not vote on the MRTA.”

“Decades of criminalization during New York’s [cannabis] arrest crusade have impacted people’s ability to secure housing, employment, and higher education, further exacerbating challenges marginalized communities faced before the pandemic and compounding efforts to survive amid the COVID-19 crisis. The same communities targeted by the war on drugs are the ones with the least access to health care right now, the ones grappling with decades of the economic toll from criminalization, with low wages, unstable housing, and the ones losing jobs and loved ones at the same time. The structural factors at play are wholly intertwined – and they cannot be ignored any longer,” according to the report’s foreword.

Legalization provides an opportunity to invest a significant portion of [cannabis] tax revenue in the communities that bore the worst of [cannabis] criminalization and are now deeply impacted by COVID-19. Both the Drug Policy Alliance and the Public Science Project at the Graduate Center, CUNY support the comprehensive Marijuana Reform and Taxation Act (MRTA), which is the gold standard reform bill in the Legislature. It provides strong community reinvestment and social equity provisions, comprehensively addresses prior criminalization, and has a balanced governance structure for the Office of Cannabis Management.

“At a time when our government must find ways to reduce placing people in confined spaces because of the pandemic, police find ways to target [cannabis] arrests in vulnerable people of color neighborhoods.  This is insanity. Stop criminalizing people of color. Pass the MRTA!” said Juan Cartagena, President & General Counsel, LatinoJustice PRLDEF

“Our ability to support the health of minority communities who’ve suffered disproportionately from cannabis criminalization, as well as our ability to create businesses and jobs within the cannabis industry, is an opportunity that should not be squandered. Additional research from the National Institutes of Health shows high levels of trauma and PTSD among African-American people in urban areas, and if we were to focus specifically on the trauma and PTSD of those incarcerated for [cannabis] crimes, those numbers would skyrocket. New York must pass legalization that addresses these lifelong impacts,” said Adrian Adams, Ed.D., Minorities for Medical Marijuana.

“This report is simply an empirical recognition of what Black and brown people across NYS have known for years,” said Jawanza James Williams, Director of Organizing from VOCAL-NY, “The only appropriate response to this reality is the immediate legalization of cannabis through the MRTA, with robust economic and social reinvestment into the communities most harmed; anything, short of that is at best racist by negligence, and a willful disregard of Black lives.”

“It is often misconstrued that the war on drugs was ‘failed,’ yet we know all too well that it has been intricately designed to result in ways that have funneled Black and Brown and Indigenous New Yorkers into the carceral state. In Syracuse – a city with the highest concentrated poverty among Blacks and Latinos nationwide, one of the most segregated school borders in NYS, and with an underfunded school district – as all across the state, this war has disproportionately destroyed families and communities of color, fulfilling its intended and designed outcome. The era for race neutral policies to solve racially biased ones is over! The only way to remedy the harm of [cannabis] prohibition is to design for racial justice at the core. New York has an opportunity to do right by the communities that have been devastated by the war on drugs, and the MRTA is an important step towards achieving those goals.” said Yusuf Abdul-Qadir, Syracuse Police Accountability and Reform Coalition.

“These findings reveal how stark and concentrated the disparities are in communities of color,” said Dr. Brett Stoudt, Associate Professor in the Psychology Doctoral Program at the CUNY Graduate Center and Associate Director of the Public Science Project. “We need comprehensive legislation like MRTA now more than ever because COVID-19 has only served to heighten the severity of this deeply entrenched and structural precarity.”


About Drug Policy Alliance

The Drug Policy Alliance envisions a just society in which the use and regulation of drugs are grounded in science, compassion, health and human rights, in which people are no longer punished for what they put into their own bodies, and in which the fears, prejudices and punitive prohibitions of today are no more. Our mission is to advance those policies and attitudes that best reduce the harms of both drug use and drug prohibition, and to promote the autonomy of individuals over their minds and bodies. Learn more at

Matt Sutton 212-613-8026

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