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Queens College sociologist Harry G. Levine is an expert on drug-abuse patterns, and co-editor, with Craig Reinarman, of 1997's Crack in America: Demon Drugs and Social Justice.
"What we have in New York is what you could call an epidemic of marijuana arrests," Levine says. "The No. 1 criminal offense in New York City is marijuana possession."
How is that possible, when pot has long been decriminalized there?
Levine explored the question by interviewing veteran and retired police officers, legal-aid attorneys and jailed smokers, producing a scathing 100-page review of the NYPD. It became apparent, he says, that police — who have a vested interest in making as many arrests as possible — profit from pot, and often "trick" their suspects into violating a specific law against openly displaying the weed in public.
"Technically, [police officers] are not allowed to go into people's pockets," Levine says. "But they can lie to people. Lying to suspects is considered good policing. They say...'We're going to have to search you. If we find anything, it's going to be a mess for you...so take it out and show it to us now.'" As intimidated young people — most of them ethnic minorities — empty their pockets of a joint or a nickel bag, they're charged with a misdemeanor.
Such busts are huge business for the police, Levine points out. Not only do they sweep potential bad guys into the system, generating vast databases of fingerprints and photographs, but the arrests also beef up crime statistics. Departments in big cities and small towns alike use the numbers to secure fortunes in federal funding. Street cops have an angle too: They like to nab docile pot users — easy to find in poor pockets of town — at the end of their patrol shifts, when the extra hours filling out reports at the precinct house get charged as overtime. In the jargon, the practice is known as "collars for dollars."
New York's example suggests a system deeply invested in criminalization, one that is unlikely to back down. When contacted by L.A. Weekly for a response to Levine's assertions, an NYPD spokesman demanded an e-mail query and hung up. Three were sent; none were answered.
Levine says his research has pointed to the same pattern in other American cities. "Atlanta and Baltimore, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Chicago..." He rattles off a long list. "The Southwest is really bad. Houston...San Antonio."
El Paso is another place where the ideological battle has flared dramatically. With cartels committing 1,600 murders in a year's span just across the border in Juárez, Mexico, El Paso City Councilman Beto O'Rourke pushed a resolution last January calling for a discussion on legalizing drugs to undercut the illegal market. "Mind you, it was not to legalize anything, necessarily," says O'Rourke, whose tenth-floor office overlooks the Rio Grande and the impoverished Mexican metropolis beyond. "Basically, it was a way of saying the current policy had failed; we need to put everything on the table and have a dialogue."
The City Council approved the resolution without dissent, but it was vetoed by Mayor John F. Cook. An irked O'Rourke tried to override the veto, only to be strong-armed by U.S. Representative Silvestre Reyes (D-Texas), who phoned all eight council members to make sure the matter was quashed. "You need to cut this out," Reyes said, as O'Rourke remembers. "It's going to be tough to get [federal] money for the community if you pass this."
Reyes, a tough law-enforcement man who spent 27 years in the U.S. Border Patrol, might have handled it differently if the resolution had only dealt with marijuana, rather than all drugs, says his press deputy, Vincent Perez. As it was, the resolution was defeated — and drug deaths in Juárez have continued to climb.
"We're almost at 2,300 murders for this year," O'Rourke says.
NORML had a field day lambasting Reyes on its Web site. Much as in New York, where Levine's research has drawn nationwide media attention, the "intense blowback" over the failed resolution actually achieved what O'Rourke termed a pyrrhic victory for the hard-liners and a step forward for those willing to consider change. "All of a sudden we had calls from all over the country," O'Rourke says.
The psychological war is one the marijuana movement can win — and why weed advocates will likely win, barring the unforeseen. It is not quite a done deal, however, because the question of pot use, for many, becomes a moral argument, and moral values are slow to change.
"People long for rules," says sociologist B.J. Gallagher, an author and lecturer in Los Angeles. "Without them, the world would be chaotic and unpredictable. We'd be having sex with each other's spouses, we'd be stealing things...
"If we legalize pot, what next? Cocaine? Heroin? That's what people are afraid of. It's not the pot, per se. It's the bigger issue: Where do we draw the line? So they say, 'Let's not change the line.'"
But history shows that the line does change — eventually. "When a majority are saying, 'This does not make sense,' the line will shift," Gallagher says. "We've seen it with [alcohol] prohibition, slavery, women's rights. We're now seeing it with gay rights. Our moral values change over time, despite the objection of people who are terrified."