New York arrest video makes the case for cannabis legalization

Published on March 5, 2020 · Last updated July 28, 2020

Almost two years ago New York City legislators and law enforcement officials promised to cut back on arrests for marijuana possession.

In a state where the majority of adults support legalized recreational cannabis, it no longer made sense for a single city to arrest an estimated 17,500 people each year for the crime of possessing cannabis. Throw in the fact that Black New Yorkers are eight times more likely to be arrested for cannabis than white people despite similar usage levels, and the war on drugs becomes just a thinly veiled war on people of color.

The unfortunate relationship between cannabis criminalization, racism, and New York City has not improved as promised, judging by an arrest video that went earlier today. The video, taken on the evening of March 4 and shared by the New York Daily News, captures the violent arrest of Fitzroy Gayle, a 20-year-old Black man suspected of smoking marijuana.

Former NYPD cop and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams shared the video via Twitter, expressing his disgust at the cops’ conduct.

While Gayle begs cops to tell him, “What crime did I commit? What did I do?” a handful of law enforcement officials drag him to the ground, punching, wrestling, and attacking him while he cries out for help. A bystander documented the entire encounter on her cell phone, later posting two videos of the incident on Twitter.

According to the Daily News, NYPD Commissioner Dermot Shea said the video shows some “disturbing points.” Most viewers seem to view that as a massive understatement given the brutality of the attack on a man whose only infraction may or may not have been smoking cannabis.

Cops took the victim to the 69th Precinct station house; charged him with resisting arrest, obstructing government administration, and possession of marijuana; and issued a summons for him to appear in court at a later date.

As long as cannabis is illegal, it will continue to be used to disenfranchise and abuse people of color, as it has been for decades. New York legislators have already spent several legislative systems fighting over the details of a recreational cannabis bill, and Gov. Andrew Cuomo has repeatedly voiced his support for legalization. But while legislators quibble over the details, law enforcement continues to use the uncertain legal status of cannabis as an opportunity to prey on people of color.

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Ashley Schwellenbach
Ashley Schwellenbach
Leafly News Editor Ashley Schwellenbach is the former managing editor of the San Luis Obispo New Times and the author of Scourge of the Righteous Haddock, Vestal, and The Wheel Diver.
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