On September 1st, a newly-minted New York City Police Department directive went into effect, instructing officers across the Big Apple to issue a simple summons and $100 fine to anyone found smoking pot in public or possessing 25 grams of weed or less.
On September 14th, Brooklyn police stopped a black man puffing on a vape pen outside of a streetside storefront, handcuffed him, arrested him on a Class A misdemeanor charge, and threw him in a jail cell for 22 hours.
Despite a series of press conferences and soundbites from NYPD brass touting the department’s latest surface-level cannabis policing reform efforts, the reality of the situation is much more grim, with cops sticking to business as usual without any apparent oversight.
First shared on social media by Brooklyn public defender Scott Hechinger, the arrested man’s story quickly went viral, highlighting the slight technicalities used by the NYPD to continue the persecution of black and brown cannabis users.
“‘THC oil’ is classified as a controlled substance in NY law. So instead of arresting & charging w/ marijuana possession, they charge w/ same crime as crack/heroin possession,” Hechinger wrote on Twitter. “An ‘A’ misdemeanor. Punishable by year in jail. This man was apparently smoking a vape.”
According to a follow-up report from Seattle alternative newspaper The Stranger, one of Hechinger’s co-workers was eventually able to negotiate the charge to a lesser, non-criminal citation. Despite the reduction, Hechinger said that the Brooklyn man will need to avoid all police interaction for six months before the charges are totally erased, with any infraction during that time bringing the man right back into New York’s notoriously harsh prison system.
As NYPD officials repeatedly claim that they are working to end the city’s decades-old cycle of racially-biased marijuana policing, public defenders on the front line of the criminal justice system say that a new focus on cannabis vaping has brought along a new set of issues.
In Queens, public defender Julia Burke told MERRY JANE that prosecutors routinely treat possession of vape cartridges and THC oils with more severity than traditional marijuana flower, despite the lack of significant differences between the two cannabis consumption methods.
“Vaping is treated as more serious than ‘regular’ marijuana possession and I have seen those charges brought in Queens with increasing frequency and charged as a controlled substance,” Burke told MERRY JANE. “Pursuing simple weed charges alone is bad enough, but labeling it a ‘controlled substance’ connotes that it is on the same level as cocaine or heroin.”
With pre-filled cartridges and discreet vaporizers gaining popularity across legal and illicit cannabis markets, it is no surprise that battery-powered pens have replaced blunt wraps and one-hitters for a portion of New York cannabis users. But as city leaders make cannabis reform a public priority, the heightened charges saddled on vapers reeks of dishonesty. In-line with policing statistics for traditional pot arrests, Burke told MERRY JANE that NYPD’s misdemeanor THC oil charges have disproportionately affected black and brown New Yorkers.
In the midst of a re-election campaign, Governor Andrew Cuomo has recently taken the first steps towards bringing total adult-use marijuana legalization to New York. But in the meantime, it appears that the NYPD will continue to use whatever loophole they can find to persecute minority cannabis users.
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