Photo via iStock/ andykatz
New York City cops have a long history of disproportionately enforcing cannabis laws against the city's most vulnerable residents, and despite Mayor Bill de Blasio's constant promises to fix the problem, the number of pot arrests conducted under his watch has actually increased. During his election campaign, de Blasio promised that he would direct police to cut back on minor pot busts, but by 2015 — his second year in office — the total number of arrests for pot possession grew by 9%.
This February, NYPD statistics reported that cops arrested nearly 18,000 New Yorkers for pot last year, 86% of whom were black or Hispanic. Since 2014, when de Blasio took office, police have arrested 75,000 New Yorkers in all for pot misdemeanors, and again, people of color account for 87% of these arrests. This May, the mayor finally stepped up to address the public outrage over the shocking disparity, announcing that he would direct the NYPD to stop arresting people for smoking pot in public.
As of September 1st, the NYPD is being directed to issue tickets to anyone caught smoking weed in public, rather than arresting them. These tickets are criminal court summonses, however, which require that the offender appear in court and issue a plea of guilty or not guilty. The amount of the fine is up to the judge's discretion, and can reach a maximum of $100 for a first offense. Public pot smoking or minor possession is considered a violation, not a misdemeanor or felony, and hence the summons is sealed at the end of the case.
De Blasio estimated that this policy will eliminate around 10,000 pot arrests annually, over half of the current number. While this is certainly a positive shift, critics of the policy argue that it does not do enough to protect the most vulnerable New Yorkers from being dragged into the criminal justice system.
“Ten thousand fewer arrests per year will only result in greater numbers of summonses for these New Yorkers, including the many who have already passed through the criminal justice system and will likely be ensnared again under the NYPD’s new guidelines,” said New York City Council Member and Black, Latino and Asian Caucus co-chair I. Daneek Miller in a statement issued by the Drug Policy Alliance.
The fact that every offender is issued a court summons is especially troublesome, as many low-income individuals may be unable to make their court dates due to work or family-related issues. Summons court judges often issue warrants for individuals who miss their court dates, which can lead to the offender being arrested down the line, escalating penalties. “There is something patently unfair about letting a petty offense morph into a criminal record that dogs a person for the rest of his or her life,” wrote the editorial board of the New York Times in an op-ed criticizing the new policy this week.
De Blasio's policy also includes a number of “carve-outs” which give police a lot of leeway to continue arresting anyone that they choose, such as allowing officers to detain any minor cannabis offender if they are unable to verify an individual's ID or address. This puts young people, immigrants, or the homeless — who may not have up-to-date identification or a steady residence — at greater risk for arrest than white, middle-class New Yorkers who are more likely to have a current ID.
“In the current political climate, immigrant New Yorkers who have any contact with the police, especially those who get arrested, risk triggering an ICE arrest,” Marie Mark, supervising attorney at the Immigrant Defense Project, said in the Drug Policy Alliance’s statement. Mark explained that immigrants without proper ID can be transferred to ICE, and even “those who have ID and are issued a summons may still face disproportionate, harsh immigration consequences; even a marijuana violation can result in the deportation and permanent separation of an immigrant from their family and community.”
Another carve-out in the new policy allows cops to arrest anyone who is on parole or probation for a former marijuana offense, no matter how minor. "New Yorkers, and especially young people, should not face criminal charges for using marijuana, period," said Laurie Parise, Executive Director of Youth Represent. "To carve people out based on past justice system involvement, which we know from all the data and reporting available is racially biased in the first place, undermines the entire goal of reducing racial disparity in marijuana arrests."
“We can no longer ignore the toll that unjust policing practices and enforcement standards are having on our communities of color,” added City Council Member Antonio Reynoso. “The Mayor and the NYPD need to stop tweaking inherently bad policies and fully halt the pursuit of criminal action against misdemeanor marijuana offenses; it is time to pressure our State legislature to legalize marijuana and begin a robust discussion of the details regarding its regulation.”
While New York City struggles to implement a solution, state legislators may be working on a way to solve the problem for good. Last month, the state's Democratic Party officially endorsed the legalization of recreational cannabis sales and use throughout the state. Even Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who has previously worked against cannabis reform, has changed his stance on legalization after several of his challengers in this year's race for governor announced their support for legal weed. This week, a new report by the state Health Department has recommended that the Empire State create a licensed and regulated adult-use market for legal marijuana.