Washington And Weed, Ctd

Andrew Sullivan —  Feb 3 2012 @ 3:35pm

Above is an AAA from October on the topic of legalization. A reader writes:

You are correct that the continuing national support for cannabis prohibition is almost entirely about symbolism (i.e. we know weed ain’t a big deal, but we can’t admit it publicly for the sake of The Children), just like it was in the early 1980s when the so-called “parents movement” brought marijuana-focused drug intolerance back from its decade-plus public policy exile. But however much the stats on MJ-related enforcement from the NYPD and other big city police departments might make for good anti-drug war propaganda for Drug Policy Alliance and the ACLU, what’s actually driving these policies has nearly nothing to do cannabis per se.

Continuing to pretend like the NYPD is on a “marijuana arrest crusade” for the purpose of stamping out pot smoking is muddying the debate over the very real, very serious, and much more important issue of how minority neighborhoods are policed.

The tactic of performing Terry Stops on minority youth and making arrests for “marijuana in public view” (arrests that rarely result in actual prosecution but do often force arrestees to spend the night in jail) cannot be understood outside the strategy of “incivilities policing”, or the belief that flooding high-crime neighborhoods with police who aggressively enforce laws against low-level offenses will “send a message” that crime in general in the particular community will not be tolerated. This strategy is carried out in the hope that social norms against crime will be strengthened and more serious, violent crime rates will fall as well.

Furthermore, the embrace of this strategy cannot be understood outside the context of the nationwide drop in crime rates since the mid-1990s, and particularly the staggering drop in NYC itself. Basically, MJ-focused enforcement is being used as a tool to control social disorder in neighborhoods that have a history of order-destroying overt drug markets (as compared to the closed social networks that support the drug markets of higher income people), NOT because the NYPD thinks people really shouldn’t be smoking that ganj.

As far as I know, there’s no good evidence that his particular tactic, or even incivilities policing in general, has had a direct effect on lowering violent crime rates. But the NYPD still enjoys remarkable cred for whatever they’ve done to bring crime rates down.  And it’s that drop in crime that might explain so many people’s reticence to question a policy that on its face seems so overtly racist and quixotic.

But there’s a deeper issue here. Residents of these neighborhoods may not be too fond of cops bullying their kids around, but many might also be happy that, at the very least, the police are actually doing some basic policing and have a permanent presence in neighborhoods, many of which were left to fend for themselves against open-air crack markets and runaway violence in the not-too-distant past. UNDER-enforcement of violent crime in minority communities is the flipside of the massive increase in drug enforcement since the 1980s.

Endlessly banging on about weed prohibition is the wrong way to approach the problem and is little more than annoying distraction for those tasked with doing the hard work of building trust and cooperation between police and minority communities.