Pubdate: Thu, 21 Jun 2018
Source: New York Times (NY)


New York City's Police Department suffered a major embarrassment this
spring when a New York Times investigation demolished the department's
claim that people of color were more likely than others to be arrested
on petty marijuana charges, because citizens in their communities
complained more about pot smoking. The investigation found that even
when complaints were factored in, the police nearly always arrested
people at a higher rate in black areas.

A new policy Mayor Bill de Blasio announced on Tuesday will lead to
fewer people being arrested for smoking marijuana in public. But the
new approach - in which officers would usually issue summonses instead
of hauling people off to jail - does not address the core problem of
racial inequality and poses new dangers.

Marijuana has been essentially legalized for middle-class, white
residents, who are rarely arrested on minor pot charges, while smoking
it is still being punished in communities of color. The disparity is
indefensible. These petty arrests don't make the public safer, while
defendants who get sucked into the justice system on low-level charges
can have trouble getting jobs, attending school or entering the
military, and run a risk of long-term entanglement with the law.

Mr. de Blasio estimated that giving most people summonses for smoking
in public would eliminate about 10,000 arrests per year - more than
half the total number - which is clearly an improvement over the
status quo. This would also move the city a step closer to abolishing
a class of arrests that no longer even exists in some other states -
including those where marijuana has been legalized.

The new policy, however, is less than ideal. For starters, summons
court judges often issue warrants when people forget their court
dates, which can lead to those people being fingerprinted and dragged
through the criminal justice system. There is something patently
unfair about letting a petty offense morph into a criminal record that
dogs a person for the rest of his or her life.

New York City released its new plan a day after the New York State
Health Department announced that a study commissioned by Gov. Andrew
Cuomo would recommend that the state allow adults to use marijuana
legally. This comes as something of a surprise, given that Mr. Cuomo
last year described marijuana as "a gateway drug."

Legalization would require approval of the State Legislature. Under
ordinary circumstances, the conservative State Senate would most
likely reject the idea out of hand. But the legalization of
recreational marijuana that just passed in Canada - with which New
York State shares hundreds of miles of a border - combined with
legalization campaigns in neighboring states could force the normally
hidebound Legislature to legalize the drug, if only to make sure New
York gets a piece of an emerging industry.

Meanwhile, critics both inside and outside law enforcement are rightly
attacking the part of New York City's new marijuana plan that will
continue to allow for the arrest of people on probation or parole who
are struggling to re-enter civic life. On Tuesday, the Manhattan
district attorney, Cyrus Vance Jr., said through a spokesman that such
a system could easily intensify the already glaring racial inequities
that come with marijuana enforcement.

Assessing the damage done by petty marijuana prosecutions, Mr. Vance
has said his office would decline to prosecute marijuana cases
beginning on Aug. 1 - except in cases in which the Police Department
can prove that the defendant represents a danger to public safety.
Other district attorneys should follow Mr. Vance's lead.