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Will the NYPD Finally Stop Arresting People for Smoking Weed in Public?

Police in New York City say they will now issue summonses to most — but not all — low-level pot offenders, cutting an estimated 10,000 arrests per year.

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This weekend, the New York Police Department implemented a new marijuana policy intended to finally put a stop to the disproportionate enforcement of prohibition laws against communities of color. The new policy, which took effect on Saturday, September 1st, directs police to issue a court summons to any individual caught with up to 25 grams of weed, or for smoking in public, rather than arresting them. The summons will come with a fine of up to $100.

The city expects that the new policy will result in 10,000 fewer arrests per year. “We’re going to see a humongous drop in people of color being arrested for marijuana,” said NYPD Chief of Patrol Rodney Harrison to ABC7. "And that was one of the whole goals of this whole new policy." The city also expects the change to reduce the amount of paperwork connected with such arrests.“It’s going to free up our cops to stay out on patrol,” Commissioner James O’Neill said during a radio interview, the New York Post reports. “It’s also going to prevent people that have no prior criminal record from entering into the criminal justice system.”

While this new policy looks great on paper, NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD have made these promises before. In 2014, de Blasio and former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton announced that anyone caught with 25 or fewer grams of weed would be subject to a summons, not an arrest. Regardless, the NYPD made 9% more cannabis possession arrests in 2016 than they did in 2015, and a full 90% of those arrested for these minor offenses that year were minorities. Since the implementation of this supposed decriminalization policy, the NYPD has arrested over 75,000 individuals on misdemeanor pot charges, with people of color accounting for 86% of these arrests. 

This year, the numbers got even worse. In the first half of 2018, a full 93% of the 6,604 people arrested for minor cannabis offenses by the NYPD were people of color. In May, de Blasio made another promise to cut down on these arrests, and within a month, announced the city's new arrest policy alongside Commissioner O'Neill. “The bottom line is, and I’ve said this many times before: the NYPD has no interest in arresting people for marijuana offenses when those arrests have no direct impact on public safety,” O’Neill said at the time, Metro New York reports.

Just like the city’s previous decriminalization policy, individual NYPD officers still have the discretion to choose whether to issue a summons or to arrest an individual. “People need to know that smoking marijuana in public is still illegal, and you can be subject to a summons or arrest,” O'Nell said, according to the New York Post. “If you’re on parole, probation, if you have a history of violence…you’ll still be subject to arrest.” Additionally, police are still directed to arrest any pot user who fails to provide proper identification, is driving a vehicle, or in a situation where a “legitimate law enforcement exception” exists.

The new policy gives individual cops a lot of leeway to decide if they want to continue putting people behind bars for minor pot crimes, or to let them off the hook with a fine. But even if they choose not to follow the new policy, there is still hope that NYC can still put an end to its history of disproportionate cannabis enforcement. District attorneys in Brooklyn and Manhattan have announced that they will no longer prosecute minor pot offenses, and up in Albany, state legislators are breaking ground on a new bill to legalize pot throughout the entire Empire State.

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