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

This article about marijuana arrests in NYC got a lot of attention yesterday. I recently posted a link to an article bemoaning the state of drug policy research. I conceded that it’s a problem but argued that it cuts both ways. This paper is an example of that. It is full of speculation and heavily laden with the ideology of the writers.

For example, they seem skeptical of the quality-of-life policing approach in NYC (often referred to as the broken windows model) and equate it with zero-tolerance. This is a pretty reductionist description that is often used by critics and “tough on crime” politicians. The broken windows approach is a policing strategy that strategically focuses on relatively minor, highly visible offences that contribute an atmosphere of disorder (turnstyle jumping, graffiti, prostitution, litter, etc.). The theory asserts that reducing these crimes will result in reductions in more serious crimes. This approach was used in NYC and is credited with huge drops in crime. The approach was adopted by the transit authority in 1990 and then by the NYC police department in 1993, explaining the study’s finding that arrest shifted from the transit police to the NYPD. Critics argue that the NYC drops in crime were during a period where crime dropped nationwide and reductions are due to multiple interacting factors rather than one law enforcement approach. Supporters argue that NYC experienced a far larger reduction in crime than other big cities and that the difference is largely due to the application of the broken windows model. Two books that look at the issue from different perspectives are Freakonomics and The Tipping Point.

At any rate, considering the publication and the tenor of the article, I suspect that they authors are advocates of decriminalization and view marijuana use as a lifestyle choice the the government shouldn’t interfere with. Reasonable people can disagree on these issues. (Personally, I’m concerned about potential increases in early exposure and applying Budweiser’s marketing strategies to newly legalized marijuana.) I’d hope that the kinds of legal penalties that are enforced are relatively mild (fines?) but I also support addressing public consumption of marijuana.