The movement for cannabis reform in New York, long stifled by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio, seems to be approaching a point of breakthrough this week.
Earlier today, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the New York Police Department (NYPD) will reform its cannabis enforcement policies by mid-June. “We must end unnecessary arrests and end disparity in enforcement,” de Blasio wrote in a mid-morning tweet.
I’m announcing today that the NYPD will overhaul its marijuana enforcement policies in the next 30 days. We must end unnecessary arrests and end disparity in enforcement.
— Bill de Blasio (@NYCMayor) May 15, 2018
De Blasio’s announcement came a little more than 48 hours after the New York Times published an investigation that found that black people were arrested on low-level marijuana charges at eight times the rate of white, non-Hispanic people during the past three years. Hispanic residents were arrested at five times the rate of white people. In Manhattan, the Times found, black people were arrested at 15 times the rate of white people.
New Visibility for an Old Problem
While the problem of New York cannabis arrests and their attendant racial disparities has long simmered in the city, developments in the past several months have brought the issue to a full boil.
Rory Lancman, NYC City Council member
On Monday, the day after the Times report landed, the New York Daily News reported that the head of the City Council’s justice committee, Councilman Rory Lancman, had asked New York City’s five district attorneys to stop prosecuting low-level cannabis possession cases entirely.
“The city has proven itself completely unwilling to end discriminatory marijuana possession policing,” Lancman said. “The situation is becoming intolerable.” He asked that misdemeanor charges for consuming cannabis in public be knocked down to simple violations, a move that would treat smoking on the sidewalk more like jaywalking than assault.
Manufacturing Criminal Records
More than a third of the people arrested on low-level cannabis charges last year had no previous criminal record, New York City Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill said at a City Council meeting Monday.
At least two of the city’s DAs are already exploring ways to scale back prosecutions, according to the New York Times.
The Brooklyn district attorney’s office, which decided in 2014 to stop prosecuting many low-level cannabis charges, is weighing an option to expand the policy to include people who consume in public without creating a public nuisance.
Manhattan’s district attorney office, meanwhile, is considering adopting a plan similar to Brooklyn’s and halting the majority of low-level prosecutions in the borough. An official there told the Times that of the more than 5,000 people arrested on low-level cannabis charges in Manhattan last year, about 100 to 200 would be prosecuted under the current plan.
It’s still unclear, the paper reports, how prosecutors in the city’s other bureaus might respond.
Marijuana possession: Something that’s not even a crime in the country’s most populous state, but the #1 reason people end up in court in the country’s largest city. pic.twitter.com/5FXxUUDqEr
— Max RN (@MaxRivlinNadler) April 30, 2018
Nixon’s Entry Pushed the Issue
Statewide, the entry of Cynthia Nixon into New York’s Democratic primary race for governor has forced current Gov. Andrew Cuomo to rethink his longtime opposition to cannabis legalization. For years, the state’s medical cannabis program has stalled under his watch, and Cuomo has famously opposed full adult legalization.
Over the past few weeks, though, Nixon has used the cannabis issue to highlight the difference between the candidates. In tweet after tweet, the former Sex and the City star has hammered on the need to legalize statewide, citing current racial disparities in arrests as well as the economic benefits likely to flow from a regulated market.
‘Already Legal’ for White People
Sunday’s New York Times investigation provided hard evidence to back up something New Yorkers of color have known for decades: White people generally don’t get arrested for cannabis, but people of color do.
The investigation’s chief finding became the headline: “Surest Way to Face Marijuana Charges in New York: Be Black or Hispanic.” Its findings also contradicted a senior police official’s claim that the disparities arose because more residents in predominantly black and Latino neighborhoods were calling to complain about cannabis.
“An analysis by The Times found that fact did not fully explain the racial disparity,” the article notes. “Instead, among neighborhoods where people called about marijuana at the same rate, the police almost always made arrests at a higher rate in the area with more black residents, The Times found.”
A piece published the same day by the Times editorial board put it more bluntly: “Studies have repeatedly shown that people across most racial groups use the drug at comparable rates. But the arrest rates for black and brown citizens are sharply higher than they are for whites—mostly because young men of color attract more scrutiny from the police.”
No Public Safety Benefit
These disparities are all the more indefensible because low-level marijuana arrests have no public safety benefit. A 2017 analysis by Harry Levine, a sociology professor at Queens College, debunked the oft-heard claim that petty marijuana arrests get serious offenders off the street, noting that 76 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession during the previous year had never been convicted of any crime.
The editorial likened the city’s handling of cannabis arrests to its stop-and-frisk practice, which a federal judge in 2013 ruled was unconstitutional because it illegally detained and searched minority citizens. “If the city isn’t careful,” the Times wrote, “it could find itself hauled into court again—this time for marijuana arrests.”
All the action has led cannabis legalization advocates to talk about marijuana legalization reaching a tipping point in New York. The state’s Democratic party is already expected to endorse a plan at the party convention next week to fully legalize adult-use cannabis.
“Ending marijuana prohibition and establishing a system to tax and regulate marijuana for adult use is the smart choice for New York communities,” said Kassandra Frederique, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, “because it will alleviate one of the biggest causes of negative interactions with law enforcement. Legalizing marijuana will also provide an opportunity, due to the revenue it will generate, for the communities that have been most devastated to start to repair the harms of the drug war.”