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New data: Rochester drug arrests 10 times higher for black people

Mature female cannabis plant nearing harvest at a medical marijuana operation in Oakland, California
Rusty Blazenhoff
Mature female cannabis plant nearing harvest at a medical marijuana operation in Oakland, California

From 2010 through 2018, there were nearly 10 black people arrested for low-level drug offenses in the city of Rochester for every one white person. The numbers are the same for low-level drug convictions in Monroe County.

That data is from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services and is included in a new brief from local cannabis advocacy group Roc NORML.

Roc NORML’s executive director, Mary Kruger, is asking for an aggressive change in law enforcement’s approach to such misdemeanors and violations.

“We’re asking the district attorney to stop prosecuting for those offenses,” said Kruger. “And when we had meetings with them, they were very receptive in the meeting and had said they were open to working with us, but as we followed up, we were unable to get any responses from them.”

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Kruger said leaders in Buffalo, Syracuse and Albany have stopped arresting low-level drug offenders.

“Their mayors and their district attorneys take steps toward offering justice to these folks knowing that we’re on our way toward legalization in New York,” Kruger said. “And the brief just highlights how Rochester and Monroe County are no different than those cities other than the fact that we’re not offering justice.”

Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley said she’s unsure if the report’s numbers are accurate. Doorley said her office does not track unlawful possession of marijuana violations -- known as UPMs -- but they do track cannabis-related misdemeanors.

Doorley said it’s the policy of the DA’s office to treat most UPMs and other low-level drug offenses by adjourning them in contemplation of dismissal.

“Which is essentially a dismissal of the person,” said Doorley. “And if it doesn’t come back into the court system within a certain amount of time, the case will be dismissed.”

Doorley, who is running for re-election this year, said she favors decriminalization of small amounts of pot instead of legalization. Why? She said it comes down to violence.

“There’s still an association of violence with large amounts with dealers,” said Doorley. “So we have to look at a way to handle that situation. But at least for personal use, there should be a move toward decriminalization.”

Doorley said her office is gathering data on the racial disparities and expects to be able to compare it to Roc NORML’s data in the coming weeks. She said she’s open to working with the group in the future.

Changes in state marijuana laws are still up for debate in Albany. Advocates hope there will be action to legalize recreational marijuana before the session ends in June.

See the study yourself here:

Rochester MJ Brief 2019.05.23 by WXXI News on Scribd

James Brown is a reporter with WXXI News. James previously spent a decade in marketing communications, while freelance writing for CITY Newspaper. While at CITY, his reporting focused primarily on arts and entertainment.