BUFFALO, N.Y. - When it comes to marijuana possession in the City of Buffalo, it's clear there is a racial disparity in who is arrested.
"18% of the population of Erie County are people of color, but they made up 76% of the arrests for marijuana possession," according to the Partnership for Public Good.
"In Buffalo about 80% of marijuana arrests are African American" said Rebecca Town, a public defender for the Legal Aid Bureau in Buffalo. She is in City Court daily and sees the faces of those going before judges. "If I get a White client who has been arrested for marijuana, usually they've been a little more blatant in the use of marijuana, they might have been smoking in public at a park, or a concert."
Andrea Ó Súilleabháin, Deputy Director for the Partnership for the Public Good, backs up the reason to legalize recreational marijuana. "We believe that regulating and legalizing marijuana and having it be a substance that's out there in a similar way to alcohol where it's legal for people 21 and over it's actually highly restricted for those who are not, would improve public safety, would restrict access to marijuana for minors and youth, and would actually save public money because we wouldn't be wasting as many dollars as we are on arresting people for simple possession and moving them through the criminal justice system."
According to the Partnership for Public Good, in Erie County from 2012-2016, nearly 2,700 people were arrested for simple low level possession of marijuana. 2,100 of them were in the City of Buffalo.
New York State Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes calls it "madness," but she's not just talking she's pushing for action. There's a proposal in the New York State Legislature to deal with people caught with a small amount of marijuana. "I think marijuana should be legalized, taxed and regulated in the state of New York."
Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples Stokes wants to end the marijuana prohibition, even seal records for prior marijuana arrests. "I'm not the person who thinks people should use marijuana, but I know that they do and because they do, they're going to go to where it is legal. Quite frankly those are dollars that are walking out the door."
In 1977 New York State decriminalized the use of marijuana. You can have 25 grams or under for your personal use right now. "The thing is you can't have it in public. It can't be in public view. There's this loophole in the law that allows folks to be arrested if they get stopped and asked to empty their pockets."
For the Assemblywoman, it's a social justice issue. "If you think about the mass incarceration of black and brown people based on marijuana arrests alone and the number of their families and children that have been destroyed putting them through a court system where they have done nothing violent, these are non-violent crimes. Children are in foster care, families are separated, communities are destroyed. All of that costs a lot of money," said Peoples-Stokes.
Sherman Webb-Middlebrooks is an Open Society Fellow who was arrested in the past for a low level marijuana charge. He ended up in the Erie County Holding Center thinking "why am I sitting in the same room with murderers, rapists, thieves, drug dealers," for a little bit of weed.
The impact of the arrest can alter a person's life forever. "Being unable to get financial aid to further their education because they might have slipped up and sold some weed back in the day, but didn't hurt anybody," according to Webb-Middlebrooks.
Governor Andrew Cuomo wants a feasibility study to examine legalizing marijuana for recreational use. It could be a game-changer when it comes to people being arrested and ending the racial disparity.
An Emerson College poll found that legalizing and taxing marijuana was favorable to 60% of Voters as a way to erase New York's budget deficit.
Ó Súilleabháin said, "it would take the profit from the new marijuana industry and reinvest it into communities that were most effected by the war on drugs."
Here's how it would be broken down:
25% of proceeds and tax revenues would be invested into education
25% into drug treatment and addiction programs
50% into local initiatives through small grants that improve the health and well being and education opportunities in communities effected by racial disparity enforcement.
Kids Escaping Drugs is against legalizing marijuana. Jodie Altman said their young clients have told them that they "started with marijuana, alcohol and nicotine. 27 years later kids are shooting heroin and using pills, and using meth and everything else. They will tell you, that's where they started when the marijuana didn't do it anymore for them then they progressed on. To me that says it's a gateway and in terms of legalizing it, why would we do that."
What is not disputed is the racial disparity and the underground economy of selling marijuana that police will tell you leads to violence.