Driving along the Brooklyn Queens Expressway (BQE), you'll see advertisements for just about everything, including alcohol, strip clubs and casinos. But there's one ad you won't see: a rejected billboard highlighting Mayor Bloomberg's marijuana arrests policies in New York City.
Most New Yorkers don't know that last year, the New York Police Department arrested close to 50,000 people for marijuana possession at a staggering cost of nearly $100 million. Even fewer know that possession of marijuana has been decriminalized in New York State since 1977. Yet over thirty years later, New York City has the dubious distinction as the marijuana arrest capital of the world.
To raise public awareness, the Drug Policy Alliance contracted advertising space on the BQE from TITAN 360, the world's largest transit advertising company. The billboard, criticizing Mayor Bloomberg for his out of control marijuana arrest policy, was set to go up this week in Brooklyn and run through the month of May. TITAN estimated the billboard would be seen by nearly 400,000 people per day.
Then last week, TITAN rejected the billboard. In an email exchange, the TITAN representative said the landlord refused the ad because of "political circumstances from the Mayor's office."
This was a stunning response. What political circumstances? Did the landlord have ties with the Mayor? Was the landlord worried about upsetting the Mayor? We inquired with TITAN--but got no answers.
The rejected ad (link) states: "Nearly half of all New Yorkers have tried marijuana--including Mayor Bloomberg. We can't arrest them all but Bloomberg is trying." The ad then states two statistics: "Marijuana arrests last year: 50,000. Cost to taxpayers: nearly $100 million."
Prior to 1997, the lowest-level marijuana arrests were one percent of all arrests in the city. Since 1997, marijuana arrests have averaged 10 percent of all arrests in the city. Bloomberg, it turns out, has overseen more low-level marijuana arrests than under Mayors Dinkins, Koch and Giuliani combined.
The vast majority of those arrested are young and an astonishing 87 percent are Black and Latino - even though whites have higher rates of marijuana use. This costs New Yorkers nearly $100 million, while we face severe cuts to services like education and the MTA.
Why are there so many people arrested if marijuana is decriminalized? Often it's because in the course of interacting with the police, individuals are asked to empty their pockets. That results in the pot being "open to public view" - which is, technically, a misdemeanor. Most of those arrested spend a day or two in holding cells before being released. But even a simple arrest for a minor drug offense can have profound collateral consequences, like loss of college financial aid, food stamps, public housing and, in some cases, even voting rights. For immigrants in our City--even legal immigrants--these arrests often lead to deportation.
DPA believes New Yorkers need to know about these arrests. So yesterday, we issued a press release about the rejected billboard and TITAN's explanation for its refusal to carry the ad.
Within hours, an aide from Mayor Bloomberg's office called. He angrily denounced our account of TITAN's rejection, and demanded we change our press release and send him a copy of the email exchange between myself and the TITAN representative. We did neither.
Later that day, TITAN's general counsel suddenly called with a new explanation. He explained the company had an internal policy which prohibits "attack" ads and ads that will create controversy. He said our ad, as is, cannot be placed by TITAN since it names Mayor Bloomberg. It was not the landlord's political concerns that caused the rejection, he said, but rather TITAN's own internal policy.
Most of the reporters who responded to our press release were, appropriately enough, looking for signs of direct involvement by the Mayor's office. When they didn't find any, their interest waned. As one reporter from a prominent daily told us, "Well, there's not really a story."
And so it goes. While the Mayor denies involvement and TITAN changes its reason for the billboard's rejection from "political considerations" to being "too controversial," the real story is being ignored: Why are Bloomberg's police unfairly targeting Blacks and Latinos for arrest when marijuana is decriminalized? Undoubtedly, the media's reaction would be different if the 50,000 people arrested every year were white.
We still hope to place the ad. In the meantime, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers continue to try marijuana. For white people, marijuana possession remains essentially decriminalized, while Blacks and Latinos continue to face questionable and outright illegitimate arrests for marijuana possession, spending 24-72 hours in a jail cell, and winding up with criminal records after being fingerprinted and photographed.
If the Mayor's office responded as quickly to the injustice of racial profiling as they did to TITAN's insinuation of political influence over a rejected billboard, we may not have a rapidly escalating marijuana arrest crusade in New York. Which is, after all, the point and the story.
Gabriel Sayegh is the director of the state organizing and policy project of the Drug Policy Alliance (www.drugpolicy.org) .