Police officers in New York will finally stop arresting people for smoking weed on city streets and in public parks. Responding to statistical data that has shown a prevalence of racially-biased marijuana policing, NYPD cops will cease filing cannabis consumption charges altogether this fall.
According to the New York Daily News, the new police protocol comes by direct order from Mayor Bill de Blasio. During his four years in office, de Blasio has consistently rejected cannabis reform policies, but has recently conceded a need for change, especially considering the city's racist arrest records and New York's statewide push for recreational legalization.
In February of this year, NYPD officials were questioned by New York City Councilors about the department's uneven prosecution of black and brown residents for small-time marijuana charges, despite equal rates of consumption across racial and socio-economic groups. There, NYPD Chief Dermot Shea claimed that 86% of the city's 17,800 weed arrests from 2017 involved people of color because "we make the majority of our arrests where we tend to get the most complaints."
But while Chief Shea would have you believe that nearly 9 out of 10 New York City pot arrests involve New Yorkers of color because of frequent 911 and 311 complaints, an investigation from the New York Times found those claims to be extremely exaggerated. Police precincts in white neighborhoods across Manhattan, Brooklyn, Queens, and more field the same number of pot calls as precincts with majority black and latino residents, but make less than half as many arrests.
As the mainstream stigma around marijuana slowly fades and is replaced by a recognition that jailing almost 20,000 people for possessing a non-lethal plant is actually a very bad criminal policy, de Blasio has responded to criticism of the NYPD in stride, amending his prohibitionist outlook to try and stem the tide of the city's racist policing procedures.
Announced to NYPD officers over the weekend, de Blasio will push to end public cannabis consumption arrests as part of a 30-day review of the department's marijuana policy. In addition to issuing summons instead of jail time for smoking a joint in Times Square, de Blasio announced a new task force responsible for sussing out the Big Apple's future if legislators do move to legalize the sweet leaf in coming years.
With the New York Democratic Party set to officially endorse legalization before the upcoming gubernatorial primaries, it is entirely possible that the next Governor of New York will quickly legalize cannabis for recreational adult-use. To that point, Sex In the City star and gubernatorial hopeful Cynthia Nixon has made legalization a major tenet of her dark horse campaign.
During his tenure as Mayor, de Blasio had previously instructed NYPD officers to issue citations instead of arrests for minor marijuana possession, but in the years since, statistics have shown that those arrests have persisted.
And even as de Blasio's latest NYPD policy shift has been heralded as a significant step in curbing the city's racist policing discrepancies, a report from CNN found that the police department has no timeframe for when they will cease making public consumption arrests, and that the new directive will not take effect for at least three or four more months. That leaves the upcoming summer months, when most New Yorkers prefer to unwind outdoors, subject to the city's status quo pot policing.
"The mayor could order NYPD to stand down," Scott Hechinger, Senior Staff Attorney & Director of Policy at Brooklyn Defender Services, wrote on Twitter Monday morning. "Instead, this summer, thousands of vast majority Black & Latino young men from only certain neighborhoods will needlessly be targeted, approached, searched, cuffed, arrested, fingerprinted, processed, convicted, & set up once again."
For New Yorkers put in handcuffs for sparking a blunt in Crown Heights or Chelsea though, there is at least one light shining at the end of the city's historically harsh criminal justice system. In concurrent announcements made last week, District Attorneys in both Manhattan and Brooklyn have said that they will stop prosecuting any and all minor marijuana charges, hopefully keeping tokers from Harlem to Bed Stuy out of the system and recordless. Unlike de Blasio's down-the-line police procedure shift, both DAs have said that their new pot policies will begin this summer.
Follow Zach Harris on Twitter