skip to content


Serving People from Arrest to Reintegration

Smoking marijuana in public: the spacial and policy shift in New York City arrests, 1992-2003

  • Organization: Harm Reduction Journal 2006, 3:22
  • Author: Andrew Golub at
  • Date Created: Friday, August 04, 2006
  • Submitted: Tuesday, August 08, 2006
  • Attachment(s): PDF

Background: During the 1990s, the New York Police Department (NYPD) greatly expanded arrests for smoking marijuana in public view (MPV). By 2000, MPV accounted for 15% of all arrests. The NYPD's supporters report this arrest activity is just part of quality-of-life (QOL) policing, which seeks to promote order in public locations by aggressively patrolling for behaviors that offend the general population. The NYPD's critics contend the NYPD has disproportionately targeted poor, black and Hispanic communities.

Methods: This paper analyzes the geographic distribution of MPV arrests from 1992 to 2003 to evaluate these alternative perspectives. A sequence of maps identify that the focus of MPV arrests shifted over time.

Results: In the early 1990s, most MPV arrests were recorded in the lower half of Manhattan (NYC's business and cultural center) and by the transit police. However, in the later 1990s and into the 2000s, most MPV arrests were recorded in high poverty, minority communities outside the lower Manhattan area and by the NYPD's policing of low-income housing projects.

Conclusion: These findings suggest that current levels of MPV arrests in NYC may not be justifiable, at least based solely on the purpose of QOL policing. Accordingly, we suggest the NYPD seriously consider less stringent measures for public marijuana smokers, especially for use outside of highly public locations in recessed locations hidden from open view (like the stairwell of a housing project). Alternatives could include Desk Appearance Tickets, fines, or simply requiring smokers to desist, discard their product, and move along.

Reentry NetPractice Areas

Pro Bono and legal aid attorney resources - Pro Bono Net