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Reform advocates underwhelmed with NYPD policy shift on marijuana enforcement


  • Members of the City Council’s progressive caucus and other cannabis policy reform advocates gathered on the steps of City Hall June 18 to critique the NYPD’s new marijuana enforcement policy. Photo: City Council Member Rory Lancman, via Twitter.

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner James O’Neill announced a new NYPD policy on June 19 that will reduce the number of individuals arrested in New York City for public consumption of marijuana.

The new policy directs officers to issue a criminal summons to individuals found smoking in public as an alternative to arrest — with some exceptions, including if the suspect has no valid identification or address, open warrants, is on probation or parole or has a “history of recent violence.” That includes anyone arrested for a violent crime within the last three years, regardless of whether the arrest resulted in a conviction. The NYPD projects that the new policy will result in 10,000 fewer arrests annually.

Marijuana arrests in New York City have declined significantly in recent years, from a high of 53,000 in 2010 to 19,000 in 2017. But racial disparities in enforcement have persisted. In recent years, over 85 percent of those arrested were black or Hispanic, an outsized proportion that stayed roughly consistent even after the NYPD adjusted guidelines in 2014 to issue summonses rather than make arrests for low-level possession offenses.

David Holland, the executive and legal director of the Empire State chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, said there is little reason to expect that the NYPD’s shift in policy will reduce the racial disparity in enforcement. “If the summonses are issued in the same way that arrests have taken place, then you’re going to have people of color paying the fines 85 percent of the time,” Holland said.

Nelson Guerrero, executive director of the Cannabis Cultural Association, a New York-based advocacy group, called the move “a very small step toward creating a real solution.” The carve-outs included in the NYPD policy, Guerrero said, leave some of the city’s most marginalized populations — undocumented immigrants, minors of color, the homeless and other groups that frequently do not have valid identification and would remain subject to arrest under the new policy — vulnerable to deportation and other consequences.

Melissa Moore, the deputy state director for the Drug Policy Alliance in New York, said the move seems to be at odds with de Blasio’s position on immigration. “The mayor has been really clear that he wants to oppose the Trump administration’s crackdown and do as much as he can to shield immigrants in New York City,” she said. “A really significant and concrete step he could actually take would be to end the arrests and the carve-outs entirely. We know that people have been deported or put in danger of deportation for years-old marijuana offenses.”

In its report, the NYPD cited the lack of a uniform prosecution policy among the city’s five district attorneys as a “significant challenge” to the development of a new police policy.

“It’s extremely disingenuous for the NYPD to say ‘we can only go this far because there are these differing ways that the cases will be prosecuted,’ Moore said. “That makes no sense whatsoever, especially if you consider that if they stop the arrests, the pipelines to those cases that they’re talking about would be basically brought to an end.”

The NYPD’s move takes place against the backdrop of a larger debate over if and when New York should join nine other states and the District of Columbia in legalizing cannabis for use by adults. Gov. Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio (both of whom have publicly acknowledged their own past use of cannabis) have been hesitant to embrace legalization even as public sentiment within the state has shifted in its favor. New York’s neighbors — Canada, Vermont and Massachusetts — have already moved to sanction recreational use, with New Jersey and Connecticut to possibly follow.

A forthcoming study on the potential impacts of legalization commissioned by Cuomo will recommend that the state begin regulating cannabis for consumption by adults, state Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said June 18. But Albany’s legislative session ended in June without any movement on legislation that would legalize cannabis for adult use.

Asked about his position on legalization, de Blasio said he is “not there yet.” “We know there is a bigger discussion happening in this state, in this nation on the question of marijuana policy, and we have to be prepared for that,” de Blasio said. “But we’re doing what we can do right now.”

Moore contends that there is nothing preventing the NYPD from ending all arrests for low-level marijuana offenses now. “They could certainly choose to focus their resources more effectively on doing things that actually support public safety, but they’re choosing not to,” she said.

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