New York Plans to Stop Wastefully Arresting People for Marijuana Possession

NYC wideangle south from Top of the Rock - Daniel Schwen - Wikimedia Commons

 
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by Owen Poindexter

on November 11, 2014

New York City took a significant step away from its longstanding strict marijuana policies with the announcement this month that it will prosecute low level pot possession arrests in a manner that is more akin to parking violations than serious crimes. Prior to the announcement, the city’s marijuana-related arrest rates had been soaring, filling already overcrowded jails and prisons with nonviolent marijuana users.

Under the new policy, announced by Mayor Bill de Blasio, people caught with small amounts of cannabis will receive a court summons and be released from police custody immediately. While questions remain as to how these new regulations will be executed, the de Blasio administration took an important step towards further much needed reforms.

According to statistics gathered by the Criminal Justice Agency and reported by the New York Times, in 2012 over half those arrested for marijuana possession were released within a couple of hours, after being processed, fingerprinted, and issued with a ticket requiring a court appearance within six to eight weeks. The remainder of those arrested, were held for up to 24 hours before being arraigned. This process would leave individuals with an arrest record that is difficult to expunge and is potentially detrimental to future job prospects.

Now, minor cannabis possession infractions will be treated more like speeding tickets. For up to 25 grams, offenders will be given a citation and a $100 fine for the first arrest ($250 for the second),  with no criminal charge or arrest record, according to Bloomberg. This saves time and money for everyone involved, avoids tagging people with the social stigma of an arrest record, and allows officers to spend more time on serious crimes.

The new policy should curtail marijuana arrests, however, questions remain about the  racist patterns starkly visible in New York (and nationwide) when it comes to drug law enforcement –– people of color being arrested significantly  more often than white people, despite similar usage rates across all races. A Queens College study found that black and Hispanic people made up 86% of cannabis-related arrests in the city (together those racial groups make up 60% of the city’s population).

It is unclear whether the new policy will impact the infamous “stop-and-frisk” tactics, in which police approach people –– typically poor, black people –– and search them for no readily apparent reason. These highly contentious searches have been a major driver of marijuana-related arrests in New York City.

Alyssa Aguilera, Political Director of VOCAL-NY, praised de Blasio’s new policy, but cautioned that this adjustment hardly fixes all issues surrounding cannabis arrests:

“We must continue working to ensure that any penalties associated with marijuana possession, whether they be arrests or summonses, are not the result of due process violations and do not perpetuate racially disproportionate outcomes and overly and unfairly burden communities of color,” she urged in a statement.

Coming on the heels of election legalization victories in Oregon, Alaska, and Washington D.C. and the passing of Prop 47 in California (which defelonized a number of small infractions, including marijuana possession), de Blasio’s announcement is in keeping with the ongoing movement toward more pragmatic drug policies.