New York's new adult-use law may have finally stopped the New York Police Department (NYPD) from disproportionately enforcing marijuana prohibition laws against communities of color.
The NYPD has a long history of exclusively arresting people of color for minor weed crimes, despite numerous attempts at decriminalization. New York state initially decriminalized weed in 2014, but by 2017, the NYPD were still busting nearly 20,000 people a year for pot. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio made several ineffectual attempts to enforce citywide decriminalization policies, but even though the total number of weed arrests declined, the percentage of minorities busted for these crimes grew from 86 percent in 2017 to 94 percent last year
But now that state lawmakers finally passed the long-delayed adult-use bill, these arrests are grinding to a halt at last. In the first quarter of 2021, before weed was legal, the NYPD arrested 163 people for pot offenses. In the second quarter, post-legalization, that number fell to eight. The number of marijuana-related summonses fell even more drastically, from 3,687 in the first quarter to eight in the second quarter. Six of the summonses and all eight arrests were for possession over the lawful limit of three ounces of pot, and the final two summonses were for illegal sales.
The main reason that New York's legalization law has been so effective at stopping arrests is that it allows adults to smoke weed anywhere that tobacco use is legal. In nearly every other legal-weed state, public pot smoking is banned, which allows cops to keep busting people. In Chicago, police still arrested 3,000 people for weed last year, even though adult-use cannabis is legal in Illinois. And again, people of color accounted for the vast majority of these arrests.
A similar pattern emerged in Colorado, one of the first states to legalize adult-use. In 2014, the year that sales became legal, possession arrests in Denver dropped to 351, down from 1,548 in 2012. But in that same time frame, the number of arrests for public display or consumption of weed jumped to 891, up from only 8 in 2012. And another 295 people were busted smoking weed in parks that year, bringing the total weed arrests in 2014 to 1,537 – nearly double the 851 arrests made in 2013, when pot was technically still illegal.
And in Washington, DC, cops are also continuing to bust people of color for smoking up in public. The total number of arrests in the District did drop by about 50 percent after the city voted to legalize personal possession and use in 2014, but 3,631 people still got locked up for weed between 2015 and 2019. And even though the city directed cops to stop arresting people for smoking in public, cops still busted around 900 people for public consumption during the first five years of partial legalization.
Most other states continue to prohibit public pot smoking, but some cities are at least working to overcome these restrictions. Madison, Wisconsin recently reduced the penalty for public pot smoking to a $1 fine, and several states have begun to approve cannabis lounges where people are legally allowed to smoke.