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Major Cities in Prohibition States Stop Prosecuting Marijuana Offenses

Major Cities Stop Prosecuting Pot Offenses
PHOTO Ralf Steinberger


Major Cities in Prohibition States Stop Prosecuting Marijuana Offenses

Attorney generals in New York City, New Jersey and Philadelphia have all said they will no longer be prosecuting small-time pot offenses.

When lawmakers fail to answer the will of the people and pass legislation allowing adults to possess and use marijuana in a manner similar to beer, it is up to leading prosecutors to stand up and say, “Hey boys, you might as well make it legal and collect the taxes because we aren’t going to pay any attention to cannabis cases anymore.”

This is what is happening in major cities in the eastern part of the nation, which, despite some technical progress when it comes to marijuana, is still having more difficulty working its way into legal territory than its western counterparts. Over the past month, attorney generals in New York City, New Jersey and Philadelphia have all said they will no longer be prosecuting small-time pot offenses — a sign that prohibition is about to collapse.

This tolerant trend to pot offenders began late last month when New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal temporarily put a stop to pot prosecutions all across the state. In a memo, he asked, “that all municipal prosecutors in New Jersey seek an adjournment until September 4, 2018, or later, of any matter involving a marijuana-related offense pending in municipal court” while his office drafts “appropriate guidance.”

This directive, while only short-term, was undoubtedly at the request of Governor Phil Murphy, who promised during his campaign to legalize a taxed and regulated pot market within his first 100 days of office. Unfortunately, there have been some snags in getting this concept through the legislative wringer. The Senate is expected to start the discussion up again soon. Meanwhile, state officials do not want to see the courts jammed up with tens of thousands of pot offenders, like what took place during the Chris Christie circus.

About a week after New Jersey said it was refusing to treat pot offenders as criminals, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance took similar action. His office has directed New York City prosecutors not to file charges against anyone arrested for weed. Only those people caught selling marijuana will be dealt with in a court of law, according to a memo.

There are a few other exceptions to the rule. Pot offenders who are “under active investigation for a violent offense or other serious crime,” can still be slapped with possession charges. But otherwise law-abiding citizens are prosecution proof. The goal behind this strategy is to “keep Manhattan safe and make our justice system more equal and fair,” Vance said.

Interestingly, the new policy was put into place a month after New York City Bill de Blasio announced, once again, that New York police officers would no longer be arresting people for small-time marijuana offenders. Yet, the mayor had made this promise before and failed to follow through. A recent investigation by the New York Times found that pot arrests are still taking place at an alarming rate, especially with respect to people of color.

District Attorney Vance has called for New York to legalize marijuana, and he might just get his wish.

Governor Andrew Cuomo said last week that he has assembled a panel to draft legislation aimed at legalizing recreational reefer statewide. The announcement came just weeks after the NY Department of Health published a report saying, “The positive effects of a regulated marijuana market in New York State outweigh the potential negative impacts.” Cuomo’s bill will be introduced in the next legislative session.

Making good on promises made earlier this year, Philadelphia District Attorney Larry Krasner recently announced that his office would no longer charge cases pertaining to minor pot possession. Since the beginning of the year, hundreds of cases involving 30 grams of marijuana or less have been rejected, according to a memo.

“This was seen as something that was a critical component of … focusing on serious cases that pose a threat to public safety,” Ben Waxman, a spokesman for the Philadelphia DA told NBC News. “The hope is that people will not needlessly have interactions with the criminal justice system.”

Although minor pot possession has been decriminalized in Philadelphia for the past several years, police have been given the opportunity to deal with pot offenders at their discretion. Initially, the citywide ordinance didn’t do much to stop the flow of marijuana cases in the local judicial system, especially when it involved a suspect that wasn’t white. But the city has improved. Now the majority (90 percent) of pot offenses are handled with a fine. Still, the other 10 percent have often found themselves in front of a judge facing misdemeanor charges. This is what Krasner aims to prevent — dismissing any chance of a minor pot offender ever having to see the inside of a courtroom.

Philadelphia’s disregard for pot cases could perhaps make more noise than what has happened in New Jersey and New York City. Unlike those areas, Pennsylvania is not on track to legalize recreational marijuana anytime soon. The state’s medical marijuana program is slowly gaining some momentum, but there is no real push to take the marijuana laws to the next level. There is hope that the latest changes in the state’s largest city might inspire lawmakers to get more progressive in the upcoming session. If they do, at least with respect to statewide marijuana decriminalization, it will have the support of Gov. Tom Wolf. He has said from the very beginning that he supports the elimination of criminal penalties for minor pot offense and the common sense approach to keeping otherwise innocent people out of the criminal justice system.

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