For a big American city with big-city problems, New York City spends an inordinate amount of energy and resources on low-level marijuana offenses.
New York arrests about 17,500 people a year for low-level cannabis crimes, an arrest rate comparable to some red states. As marijuana legalization spread across the United States, police officers in the nation’s largest and densest metropolis reacted by arresting more people for marijuana possession than before. And according to a review of arrest stats, black people were arrested at a rate eight times greater than whites.
Meanwhile, shocked into action by gubernatorial challenger Cynthia Nixon, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo commissioned a state health department study that recommended marijuana be legalized outright. It’s clear that NYPD policy is far behind the times and that something needed to be done. And it still does.
A “new” arrest policy announced earlier this week by New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio is a recipe for lots and lots of marijuana arrests, drug-policy advocates say.
Beginning on Sept. 1, according to DeBlasio, NYPD officers will issue citations to people consuming cannabis in public instead of arresting them. In most cases, anyone caught smoking cannabis by a police officer will receive a summons to appear in court, where they will be assessed a fine of $100.
But there are some exceptions. Scenarios in which a person can still be arrested for marijuana possession in New York City include: if the person smoking weed is on parole or on probation, doesn’t have identification, has been arrested for marijuana before, has a violent crime on their records, or at “officer’s discretion.”
Such leeway allows a police officer to arrest someone for marijuana whenever they choose to do so, advocates say — and means that anyone already caught up on the drug-arrest treadmill will stay there.
This might help out in predominantly white neighborhoods, but in communities of color, this “all but guarantee[s] the status quo of racial disparity [will] continue,” according to a joint statement issued by the Drug Policy Alliance and VOCAL-NY on Tuesday.
“We have firmly said there should be no arrests, no summonses, no using marijuana as a pretext for police interactions,” said Civil Rights Campaign Director Nick Encalada-Malinowski and Drug Policy Alliance New York Director Kassandra Frederique. “It’s frustrating that as the New York State Health Department moves toward legalization, the city is continuing its shameful history of racist marijuana enforcement.”
Both advocacy groups also point out that New York City’s tepid step toward reform still lags far behind bolder steps taken by other, supposedly more conservative cities. As an example, lawmakers in Nashville, Tennessee downgraded all low-level marijuana possession cases to citations before state lawmakers intervened.
There appears to be no similar forces in New York State holding DeBlasio back. Thus, while the policy sounds good and might generate some nice headlines, the key issues — cannabis is illegal, and it shouldn’t be; people of color get arrested more often for it than whites and they shouldn’t be — remain.
At a press conference this week, DeBlasio said that the new policy would eliminate about 10,000 of the city’s annual 17,500 marijuana arrests. But there’s yet another trick. Those 10,000 arrests would become court summonses under the new policy. And according to the New York Times, 70 percent of court summonses eventually become arrest warrants.
At the same conference, Police Commissioner James P. O’Neill justified punishing past offenders more harshly using the same rhetoric that justified earlier “stop-and-frisk” policies.
“If you have a propensity to commit crimes, and our job is to keep people safe, and if you’re going to commit quality-of-life violations, I think the consequences have to be higher,” he said.
As The Times reported, “there is no good evidence” that marijuana arrests in New York led to decreases in other types of crime.
TELL US, did you think arresting people for marijuana decreases other crimes?