Shauna Miller is a writer based in Washington, D.C. She is the former managing editor of CityLab.
NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton and D.C. Police Chief Cathy Lanier disagree on marijuana and its relationship to violent crimes. Or do they?
With so many changes to marijuana laws going into effect across the United States over just the past couple of years—including decriminalization in some places, full legalization in others, and expanded medical marijuana access in many more—you might forgive police officials from expressing wildly differing feelings on the subject.
"In this city, people are killing each other over marijuana more so than anything that we had to deal with in the '80s and '90s with heroin and cocaine," Bratton said at a press conference Monday.
Marijuana was sort-of decriminalized in New York City late last year, when Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio announced they would "stop arresting people on low-level marijuana charges and issue them tickets instead," as the Daily News reported. So Bratton's seemingly sudden animus toward pot strikes a bit of a weird tone, and as Gothamist notes, New York has certainly seen darker days than these:
[Is this w]orse than when gang violence killed 523 people in upper Manhattan alone from 1983 to 1988? Worse than when more than half of 414 homicides catalogued between March and October of 1988 (we had a total of 328 in 2014) were deemed drug-related? Worse than 1990, when 2,245 people were murdered in New York City?
Meanwhile, in Washington, D.C., where a law legalizing possession of up to two ounces of marijuana went into effect last week, Metropolitan Police Chief Cathy Lanier told reporters at the American News Women's Club this week that pot users represented the least of the city's policing problems—even more so now that resources would not be spent arresting and jailing residents for possession. “All those arrests do is make people hate us,” she said.
Lanier characterized Washingtonians who would have previously been busted for possession as characteristically nonviolent, and noted that legal alcohol tends to create far more difficult situations for her officers. "Marijuana smokers are not going to attack and kill a cop," she said. "They just want to get a bag of chips and relax. Alcohol is a much bigger problem."
That such starkly different views on marijuana would come from two top-ranking police officials is less surprising when you take local context into account. More than 70 percent of D.C. voters said yes to Initiative 71, so it's in Lanier's political interests to seem chill about the changes. Bratton, on the other hand, is trying to get back into the good graces of the police unions following a dust-up between them and the mayor in the wake of the shooting deaths of two NYPD detectives in December.
Bratton's rhetoric has something in common with Lanier's, though, whether he intended it or not. Gawker's Andy Cush hit the nail on the head in a post earlier this week on the commissioner's claims about pot and violent crime:
These aren't stories of overdoses or men driven driven to madness by a bong rip; they're the direct consequences of a culture that sends people to jail for pot. Whether he meant to or not, the commissioner of the NYPD just made a pretty compelling case for ending prohibition.
If we want to end weed-related violence in New York, we have a really simple means of doing so: legalizing it. How many of the city's beer distributors have been murdered this year?