This may finally be the year that New York City starts catching up with the West Coast in respect to cannabis reform. The Big Apple has been slow to keep apace with other cities that have taken steps towards social justice for marijuana users, and despite constant promises to decriminalize minor cannabis offenses, the New York Police Department has continued making marijuana arrests unchecked. Public outrage grew after numerous reports showed that the NYPD were almost exclusively targeting people of color with such charges, and the city's government is at last taking steps to put an end to this practice.
The NYPD has implemented a new decriminalization policy that will hopefully put an end to minor pot arrests, but there are still hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who have been saddled with criminal records after being busted with tiny amounts of weed. To resolve this predicament, district attorneys in Manhattan and Brooklyn have announced that they are working to vacate former pot convictions, potentially clearing the records of tens of thousands of people.
Earlier this year, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance announced that his office would no longer prosecute minor marijuana offenses, and this week, Vance moved to vacate over 3,000 prior pot possession and public consumption cases dating back to 1978. These specific cases involve individuals who had been issued open summons warrants because they did not show up to court. “By vacating these warrants, we are preventing unnecessary future interactions with the criminal justice system,” said Vance, according to Reuters. “We made the decision that it is really in the interest of justice.”
Last Friday, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez also announced that his office was working to clear former convictions. Like Vance, Gonzalez has moved to vacate 3,438 open summons warrants for minor pot crimes. In a press conference, the DA explained that his office was also working to clear the records of more than 20,000 former cannabis offenders. “It’s a little unfair to say we’re no longer prosecuting these cases, but to have these folks carry these convictions for the rest of their lives,” Gonzalez told the Associated Press.
Gonzalez told reporters that his office only prosecuted 200 to 300 pot cases a year before 2005, but that number shot up to around 2,000 a year under former NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton's “broken windows” policing strategy. The DA urged Brooklyn residents with former convictions to request a dismissal of their charges, but noted that some individuals — including sex offenders and anyone convicted of violent felonies — will not be eligible for expungement. “We are making Brooklyn a model for what a progressive criminal justice system could look like,” he said, the New York Daily News reports. “These communities of color were targeted during the failed war on drugs and stop and frisk.”
Many other cities and states across the country have also made steps to clear former pot offenders' records. California's cannabis legalization measure allowed any Golden State resident to apply to have their records cleared, but a number of cities, including San Francisco and San Diego, have been automatically clearing eligible convictions. Rhode Island just passed a law allowing those convicted of minor pot possession to have their records cleared, and states like Oregon, Colorado, Washington, Vermont, and New Jersey have all passed or proposed similar initiatives.
Although the district attorneys' new efforts are great news for residents of Manhattan and Brooklyn, no relief is being offered to the majority of New York City residents, as the top law enforcement officials of the city's other three boroughs have announced no such plans for reparative reform. Change may need to come on a state level, but fortunately this seems increasingly likely, as state lawmakers are currently drafting a bill to completely legalize the recreational use of cannabis in the Empire State. Pro-legalization gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon may have lost yesterday's primary election, but incumbent Gov. Cuomo is finally taking steps to support legalization, following the advice of a recent report from the state’s Health Department advocating the creation of a legal adult-use cannabis market.