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New York City Decriminalizes Some Public Smoking of Marijuana in Policy Shift

by Derek Gilna

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that as of September 1, 2018, the New York Police Department will no longer arrest individuals for the public smoking of marijuana in some circumstances and instead will issue tickets. However, those with arrest records, convictions, or open warrants will still be arrested and charged with a crime, he said.

Unchanged will be the police power to stop and search people, which concerns many people who feel that police disproportionally target people of color, a sentiment that is borne out by studies that show 80 percent of marijuana arrests are of non-whites. Unfortunately, since many of those same individuals have arrest records, they will continue to be subject to arrest for any marijuana incidents.

De Blasio said approximately 17,500 individuals are arrested every year for marijuana possession, but he expects the number to drop to around 10,000 with the change in policy. People given a ticket under the new policy will have to wait while police check their database but after that, if they have no warrants or arrests, they will be free to go. But they will be required to appear in court on the ticket at a future date. However, if they fail to appear at that court dater, they could then be subject to arrest.

Both de Blasio and New York Governor Andrew M. Cuomo had previously been reluctant to decriminalize the possession and use of marijuana, but they started to do so after being confronted with evidence of a wide racial divide in arrests of white and non-white individuals. The mayor, who has in the past experienced lukewarm support from his city’s police department for a variety of reasons, has received substantial pushback from the officers on this issue, who argue that stopping people for marijuana possession often leads to the discovery of other criminal acts.

De Blasio stated in January that the current level of arrests was “a normal level in the sense of what we were trying to achieve.... We’re doing what we can do right now,” he said. Cuomo, who in the past referred to marijuana as a “gateway drug” but has been under pressure from primary opponent Cynthia Nixon who favors outright legalization, has reluctantly begun to embrace an accelerating trend to decriminalize minor marijuana violations.

Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill in May organized a group to study the issue of racial disparities in arrests, as highlighted by a New York Times story, in an effort to come up with an enforcement policy that addresses the issue. The 19-page report produced by that group, however, failed to note that some officers continue to arrest people for smoking marijuana. O’Neill himself exhibited some ambivalence on the new policy, stating, “If you have a propensity to commit crimes, and our job is to keep people safe, and if you’re going to commit quality-of-life violations, I think the consequences have to be higher.”

Manhattan district attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. said a six-month study showed that marijuana arrests “waste an enormous amount of criminal justice resources for no punitive, rehabilitative, deterrent or other public safety benefit.” Most experts now agree that “there is no good evidence” that marijuana arrests reduce serious crime.

Vance applauded the new policy as a step forward but was concerned that some arrests of people based upon their criminal records “stands in contrast with the overarching goal of increasing fairness at the same time as maintaining public safety.”

Even though the new policy does not go into effect until September 2018, statistics show that arrests for marijuana violations have fallen since 2014, when 26,000 were arrested. 



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