During his 2013 campaign, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio promised that he would direct the NYPD to cut back on arrests for minor marijuana violations, citing oft-raised concerns that cops were disproportionately enforcing these laws in low-income and minority neighborhoods. After being elected mayor, de Blasio announced a new policy of cannabis decriminalization, in which anyone caught with under 25 grams of pot would be receive a summons rather than be arrested.
The mayor's promises made for great press, but communities of color soon found that the NYPD was still eagerly locking up anyone caught with weed. In 2015, cops arrested 9% more people for marijuana possession that they did in 2014, despite the promises of decriminalization. Since 2014, the NYPD has arrested over 75,000 individuals for misdemeanor weed possession charges, and minorities account for around 87% of those arrested.
Earlier this year, the issue returned to the spotlight after 2017 police statistics illustrated that the NYPD was still ignoring the city's decriminalization policy when it came to minorities. At a hearing on the matter in February of this year, NYPD Chief Dermot Shea claimed that the reason for this disproportionate enforcement was that police were simply making more arrests in neighborhoods where they received the most 911 or 311 calls reporting public weed consumption.
The New York Times looked into Shea's claims, and found that police truly were making more arrests in communities of color, compared to largely-white communities that made equal numbers of 911 and 311 calls. Journalists reported that over the past three years, black New Yorkers were arrested for pot possession at eight times the rate of their white neighbors. In the light of these new reports, de Blasio has again claimed that he will direct the NYPD to cut down on low-level pot busts.
De Blasio announced that over the next several months, the NYPD will be working to reform its cannabis enforcement policies. Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance released a separate statement announcing that his office will "decline to prosecute marijuana possession and smoking cases" starting August 1st. "The dual mission of the Manhattan DA's Office is a safer New York and a more equal justice system," Vance said, according to Forbes. "The ongoing arrest and criminal prosecution of predominantly black and brown New Yorkers for smoking marijuana serves neither of these goals."
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said that over the past three months, his office has been cutting down on the number of marijuana smoking cases it has been prosecuting by half. Now that the mayor and the NYPD are on board, Gonzalez intends to cut the number of cases down even more. District Attorneys for the other three boroughs have been less enthusiastic about demonstrating support for decriminalization, though.
Even in Brooklyn and Manhattan, District Attorneys are still reserving the right to prosecute individuals for minor pot possession if they already have criminal records. Scott Hechinger, senior staff lawyer and director of policy at Brooklyn Defender Services, said that this move undermines the idea behind the entire policy, considering that individuals in low-income and minority neighborhoods are statistically more likely to have criminal records.
"The people that are going to have records are folks that live in neighborhoods that are overpoliced and targeted for enforcement," Hechinger told the New York Times. "The odor of marijuana has become the new broken taillight. It creates a pretext that's quite difficult to disprove for officers to approach and search our clients in neighborhoods with a high police presence."