It may be a hard sell for legislators and police, but on the evening of Sept. 18, Manhattan DA Cy Vance got the chance to voice his support for cannabis legalization to a very sympathetic audience.
On Tuesday, a group of herbal advocates and cannabis entrepreneurs showed up to hear Vance speak before the monthly CannaGather networking meeting, held at Lower Manhattan’s Galvanize venue. Vance was the featured speaker that night and he won enthusiastic applause before he’d even said a word. The assembled were aware of his new policy, officially instated on Aug. 1, of declining to prosecute New Yorkers for simple cannabis possession, as well as his more recent move to toss out some 3,000 warrants for low-level pot offenses dating back to 1978.
Vance was also giving out copies of the new study released by his office in May, titled “Marijuana, Fairness and Public Safety: A Report on the Legalization of Recreational Marijuana in the United States.” The report is clearly aimed primarily at New York state legislators, who may soon be considering the legalization question.
A Policing ‘Peace Dividend’
Vance invoked the two principles stated in the report’s title in his opening remarks, making clear that fairness and public safety are the twin touchstones for his policy decisions.
“We have a simple mission in the Manhattan DA office,” he said. “We look at everything we do and ask: Does it make us safer and does it make the justice system fairer? I’ve become convinced that prosecution for minor possession of marijuana advances neither goal.”
He also noted the “very disproportionate enforcement” of pot offenses in New York City. “For every white person arrested, there are 15 people of color,” he said.
Restating the policy that has now been in place for a month and a half, he said, “Our office will not prosecute for simple possession or smoking, only if a sale is observed.” He did acknowledge that sometimes the charge can still be for mere possession, but only in such cases as “if the buyer runs away.”
The traditional police practice (now also being changed by New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio) of prosecuting people who have cannabis is “not proportionate,” Vance said. “If you’re speeding down the West Side Highway, you just get a ticket — for smoking a joint, you go to jail. We’re not saying there shouldn’t be a consequence for breaking the law, but we shouldn’t create sanctions for laws that are no longer sensible.”
Vance asserted that his rethinking of the old policy is having results.
“Over last 18 years I’ve been DA, the number cases prosecuted annually has dropped from 100,000 to half that,” he said. “And we expect it to be down to 40,000 next year.” In the past, “prosecutions have overwhelmingly been for low-level offenses like marijuana possession, which is now down to 5,000 per year.”
Pot prosecutions in the city have long been second only to “theft of services” — that is, beating the subway fare, or “turnstile-jumping,” as New Yorkers call it. This is now down to 10,000 per year and is expected to likewise drop — on Feb. 1, Vance’s office instated a similar no-prosecution policy for this offense.
Vance said there has been an “enormously sharp drop in arrests under the new policy since Aug 1.” He also boasted of results in “racial equity,” with “less black and brown young men and women getting arrested. We have a lot of work to do restoring trust between communities and police.”
Vance portrayed the intolerant attitudes of former city administrations as outdated, “We’re a different city than in the ’80s. There has been a 90 percent reduction in homicides since then. We think there should be a peace dividend. We can be more selective about prosecuting low-level criminal cases.”
Coming Out for Legalization
While Vance’s May report stopped just short of openly advocating for cannabis legalization, he pulled no punches in front of the CannaGather crowd.
“I think marijuana legalization is coming,” he said. In preparing his study, Vance said his team met with officials from states that have legalized to get a sense of how it has impacted fairness and public safety.
“We here in New York state don’t have to be afraid of legalization,” he says.
He said there are still more things to study before state lawmakers will be ready to legalize. He noted the particularly tricky question of road safety.
“Currently, there is no test as there is with alcohol to determine how much THC is too much when you’re behind the wheel. We need to have our police departments figure that out, with good science,” he said. He also addressed the issue of responsible packaging, invoking the specter of kids ingesting “marijuana gummy bears.”
“We need to make it rational for legislatures to approve legalization,” he concluded. And signing off to the crowd of cannabis-industry hopefuls, he added, “I want you all to be successful and legal.”
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