The war on drugs in NYC escalated under Mayors Giuliani and Bloomberg. Giuliani and Bloomberg targeted marijuana, the most commonly used drug. These two mayors incarcerated large numbers of young people of color and whole families were destroyed. New York legalized medical marijuana while continuing the war on drugs. New York only recently decriminalized marijuana. Full legalization of recreational marijuana will occur as soon as 2020. Simple decriminalization saves New York City and New York State considerable money. Full legalization will make more money available for various public services. NYC already expunged 160,000 low level marijuana convictions.
Why NYC Targeted Poor, Minority Cannabis Users
NYC used mass incarceration for a variety of effects. NYC had a reputation of being a crime filled city during the white flight era. People fled NYC because of the declining investment and safety. In order to attract investors, the city had to clean up it’s image. Giuliani’s war on the adult entertainment industry began the city’s new PR. Broadway theatres were not doing well. Disney offered to save them, but they needed the Times Square area cleaned up. And so Giuliani cleaned them up in order to get the Disney investment. This made the city a much more popular place among young white people.
As these “artists” moved into high crime, deindustrialised neighborhoods, they attracted the attention of real estate investors. NYC removed the underclass to truly capitalize on the potential of these neighborhoods. At this particular point New York politicians interest shifted to dealing with socioeconomic issues such as redlining, deindustrialization, and segregation which had created the urban underclass.
Developers and the city needed a quick way of removing poor minorities. The real estate industry collaborated with the city to use war on drugs as an excellent tool for gentrification. Under Mayor Bloomberg marijuana related arrested dramatically increased, while the city exempted white smokers from the crackdown. The city was so eager to clean up its image among the affluent that it did not consider what the long term economic costs of mass incarceration would be. NYC is highly unionized, and it’s unions are paid well. So now New York spends more per prisoner than any other state.
Mass Incarceration of Cannabis Users Has Destructive Economic Effects
Mass incarceration prevents NY from dealing with other massive issues. Due to extreme income inequality, NY now has the second highest homeless population of any city in the world. Only Manila, Philippines has more homeless people. This is an absolute disgrace that the self proclaimed business capital nearly rivals a third world city in homelessness. A number of homeless in NYC likely have criminal records from cannabis or other drugs. Due to criminal records they cannot get employment, housing, or education. In short, the war on drugs instituted for gentrification purposes in NYC maintained and expanded massive poverty in the city. Bloomberg’s mass incarceration of the poor simply masked the greater issue.
Mass incarceration used up large sums of money, and depleted the city of resources needed for education, or for public transportation. The MTA now struggles to fill it’s 51 billion dollar capital budget for the next 5 years. Public Transportation needs major system upgrades and needs to expand the system as well. The MTA spends an average of $140,000 a year on one MTA employee. NYC has the most segregated schools by race in the nation. Additionally NYC is dealing with desegregation for the economic good of the city and for basic human rights. All while it costs $337, 524 dollars to incarcerate just one person in New York for one year. Quite clearly it’s cheaper to properly educate one child. Helping homeless costs far less, and education spending per capita is not that expensive either. NYC spends $25, 771 per student for public schools.
Phasing Down the War on Drugs/the War on NYC’s Poor
Fortunately the city realized that this is unsustainable. City spending on mass incarceration drained the city of resources. NYC will close the notorious Rikers Island, an island in the East River between the Bronx in Queens, due to falling inmate populations and various criminal justice reforms. NYC will place inmates in smaller jails throughout the 5 boroughs. Rikers Island will be available as public land and will be used for other purposes. There are proposals to make Rikers Island a hub of renewable energy.
Obviously not incarcerating people for cannabis (or for other drugs) alone will save lots of money. Federal courts ruled Bloomberg’s stop and frisk as unconstitutional six years ago. As the ruling ended that policy the number of drug related arrests went down. That saves money that can be redeployed for education, for mass transit, or for various housing uses. But the marijuana legalization proposed in 2019 would specifically earmark funds from cannabis taxes to go to public transportation. New York cannot exist without public transportation. Keeping up public transportation and expanding it is vital to the city and to the greater metropolitan area.
Cannabis taxes could make up part of the new funds going to the MTA, along with congestion tolls and internet sales taxes. Only part of the revenues from cannabis taxes would go to mass transit. It would be up to the state legislature to decide, but there would be no reason they couldn’t go to support things such as healthcare or education. The new revenues from the cannabis taxes could be matched with cost savings as mass incarceration and the war on drugs is ended. In short, cannabis legalisation provides a big economic boost to New York City.