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

Andrew Golub12*, Bruce D Johnson2 and Eloise Dunlap2

Author Affiliations

1 Department of Sociology, University of Vermont, Burlington, VT, USA

2 Institute for Special Populations Research, National Development and Research Institutes, Inc. New York, NY, USA

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Harm Reduction Journal 2006, 3:22  doi:10.1186/1477-7517-3-22

Published: 4 August 2006



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.


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.


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.


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.