Pubdate: Wed, 16 May 2018
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2018 The New York Times Company
Author: Benjamin Mueller


After years of halting steps, top prosecutors and elected officials in
New York City on Tuesday made a sudden dash toward ending many of the
marijuana arrests that for decades have entangled mostly black and
Hispanic people.

The plans, still unwritten and under negotiation, will rise or fall on
the type of conduct involving marijuana that officials decide should
still warrant arrest and prosecution. The changes appear likely to
create a patchwork of prosecution policies across the city's five
boroughs, and are unlikely to restrict police officers from stopping
and searching people on suspicion of possessing a drug that is now
legal in a number of states.

But with the city now conceding a wide racial gap in arrests and with
the Police Department's rationale for that gap collapsing under
scrutiny, the plans represent a striking shift that could lead in some
parts of the city to people generally facing no criminal penalties for
smoking marijuana.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who suggested only weeks ago that city policy
would hold fast until New York State legalized the drug, directed the
Police Department on Tuesday to have a plan within 30 days to "end
unnecessary arrests."

The Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., said he would
stop prosecuting marijuana possession and smoking arrests this summer,
and he gave the Police Department until then to make a case for still
charging limited categories of people.

The Brooklyn district attorney, Eric Gonzalez, said that over the last
three months his office had doubled the number of marijuana smoking
cases it had stopped prosecuting and that it now planned to start
throwing out more cases after the Police Department weighed in.

And the police commissioner, James P. O'Neill, said he would convene a
working group to review marijuana enforcement tactics and conceded
that at least some arrests "have no impact on public safety."

A New York Times investigation published on Sunday showed that black
people were arrested on low-level marijuana charges at eight times the
rate of white people over the last three years, and that among
neighborhoods where people called to complain about marijuana at the
same rate, the police almost always made arrests at a significantly
higher rate in the area with more black residents.

Defense lawyers and drug reform advocates, stung by years of piecemeal
policy changes that have only reined in prosecution and arrest tactics
bit by bit, said the plans did not yet offer any assurances that the
decades-long era of mass enforcement of marijuana laws was over.

Kassandra Frederique, the New York State director at the Drug Policy
Alliance, which has long pushed for legalization and publicized the
racial gap in arrests, faulted Mr. de Blasio for not acting sooner. In
January, the mayor said the roughly 17,500 annual marijuana arrests
represented "a normal level in the sense of what we were trying to

"It is a waste of our public safety resources to arrest people for
marijuana," Ms. Frederique said. She said she remained concerned that
the police ticketed and arrested so many people for low-level crimes
in black and Hispanic neighborhoods.

The Brooklyn district attorney's office in 2014 defied the Police
Department and decided to stop prosecuting some low-level marijuana
cases, but carved out exceptions for people accused of smoking in
public or who had criminal records. Since then, prosecutors in the
borough have declined to press charges in between 15 percent and 20
percent of cases.

At the end of 2014, Mr. de Blasio said the police would largely give
summonses instead of making arrests for carrying personal marijuana,
and reserve arrests mainly for smoking in public.

Arrests fell from about 26,000 people in 2014 to 17,500 people on
average in the years since then, about 87 percent of them black or

But still, thousands of people continued to miss work and school for
court and face consequences in their searches for housing or jobs.
Research has shown there is no good evidence that marijuana arrests
are associated with reductions in serious crime in New York City.

In a report released Tuesday, Mr. Vance said he supported legalizing
marijuana and had found no rationale for the New York City's
enforcement tactics: "These arrests waste an enormous amount of
criminal justice resources for no punitive, rehabilitative, deterrent
or other public safety benefit. And they do so in a racially disparate
way that stigmatizes and disadvantages the arrestees," the report said.

Mr. Gonzalez said he supported civil summonses instead of arrests for
marijuana, while Mr. Vance supports civil or criminal summonses until
marijuana is legalized by the state. The Bronx district attorney,
Darcel D. Clark, urged the police to give criminal summonses in lieu
of arrests, but stopped short of saying her office would decline to
prosecute any cases. The office of the Queens district attorney,
Richard A. Brown, said in a statement it was awaiting the results of
the Police Department's review, and the office of the Staten Island
district attorney, Michael E. McMahon, did not respond to requests for

The district attorneys in Manhattan and Brooklyn left the door open to
prosecuting people on marijuana charges if they had previous criminal
records. Scott Hechinger, a senior staff lawyer and director of policy
at Brooklyn Defender Services, said doing so would undermine a policy
intended to reduce the impact of marijuana laws on black and Hispanic
people: "The people that are going to have records are folks that live
in neighborhoods that are overpoliced and targeted for enforcement,"
he said.

Whereas Manhattan prosecutors would generally decline to bring charges
in cases of public smoking, Brooklyn officials signaled they would
keep prosecuting cases in which smoking created a public nuisance.
That decision concerned defense lawyers, who are worried that if
police officers make that determination, too many public smoking cases
would continue to be prosecuted in the borough.

Even in states that have legalized marijuana, public smoking is not
allowed, often leading to a civil penalty.

The moves on Tuesday highlighted the discretion afforded the city to
enforce the state's marijuana law as police officials see fit. But
defense lawyers and drug reform advocates said that so long as using
marijuana was still a crime, police officers would continue to seize
on the smell of marijuana to stop and search people and check for open

"The odor of marijuana has become the new broken taillight," Mr.
Hechinger said. "It creates a pretext that's quite difficult to
disprove for officers to approach and search our clients in
neighborhoods with a high police presence."
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