photo by Martin Alonso
Starting Labor Day weekend, residents of New York City will no longer face arrest for smoking marijuana in public.
Back in 2014, city officials announced that people stopped for low-level marijuana possession – 25 grams or fewer – would be ticketed rather than arrested. First-time offenders face a fine of up to $100, which can rise to $250 for a second offense. Those caught in the act of actually smoking the marijuana were still subject to arrest, however. As of Sept. 1, that too will change, a move that Mayor Bill de Blasio estimated would eliminate 10,000 arrests per year.
Given the city’s self-congratulatory rhetoric, you’d be forgiven for forgetting that marijuana is still illegal in the Big Apple. But if you need a reminder, consider another change in enforcement – a free, and involuntary, ride to court.
The Wall Street Journal reported that, while the NYPD will not arrest those smoking in public, officers will escort offenders with an open summons warrant to court in order to resolve the outstanding ticket. Originally, de Blasio noted that failure to address a summons can lead to a warrant, eventually resulting in an arrest. This is true enough, but the police official who spoke to the Journal described the process differently. The offender with an existing summons won’t be arrested. Instead, he or she will receive an additional summons and be taken directly to court, or into custody if the court happens to be closed.
In other words, people can effectively pay the city a $100 fee for the privilege of smoking in public, without risking arrest. For smokers who cannot or do not pay up, however, police officers are prepared to abduct them – it is hard to think of another word for being forced into a patrol car without an arrest – and march them in front of the court to settle their tab. As Ed Mullins, president of the Sergeants Benevolent Association, told the Journal: “We’re basically becoming a non-enforcement agency. It is not up to the police to make sure people pay their fines.” Or at least it shouldn’t be.
This is a silly solution, and worse, it addresses the wrong problem.
That problem is the persistent disparity in the race of New Yorkers arrested for minor possession or smoking marijuana in public. Despite the fact that it is well-established that people of all races smoke marijuana at generally the same rate, in 2017 87 percent of the people arrested for smoking were black or Hispanic. And black and Hispanic New Yorkers also made up 66.6 percent of the group who received marijuana-related summonses that year. Demographic data for summonses are not made available to the public, unlike arrest data, which means this problem will only become harder to track. This change risks sweeping New York’s real marijuana problem partially or fully out of sight, which is good news for the mayor’s office but bad news for everyone else.
While stop-and-frisk is – thankfully – a thing of the past, poor and nonwhite New Yorkers still face a disproportionate share of marijuana policing. If you are rich, white or, especially, both, the odds that the police will bother you about marijuana are vanishingly small. People in those groups who do get charged are often in a position to simply pay the summons or to hire lawyers to help them beat any charges. The new enforcement regime hasn’t changed this.
The piecemeal marijuana policy is further complicated by the fact that some prosecutors now refuse to move forward with cases of marijuana possession or public smoking. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance announced that, as of Aug. 1, his office will no longer prosecute such cases in the borough unless the individual possesses more than 10 bags of marijuana or poses a “public safety threat.” Vance also continues to work with criminal justice advocacy groups to seal past marijuana conviction records. Brooklyn’s district attorney, Eric Gonzalez, has continued his predecessor’s policy of declining to prosecute low-level marijuana cases, though local NPR-affiliate WNYC found that it made less difference than expected. Gonzalez recently said he plans to expand the policy’s reach. Prosecutors in the other three boroughs, however, have declined to follow suit.
The correct solution would be to repeal the state’s outdated prohibitions against marijuana. Currently, New York allows its residents to use marijuana for medical reasons under strict regulations. Full legalization bills have made it before the New York Legislature before, and some signs point toward legalization in the near future, though the earliest we are likely to see such a change is 2019. Reports by media organizations including The New York Times and Politico New York continue to raise awareness of the disproportionate impact of enforcement on black and Hispanic communities, and other observers cite the potential tax revenue benefits to a chronically cash-hungry state. In addition, the state Health Department released a report earlier this year supporting statewide legalization.
Of course, even if New York legalizes marijuana in the state, it will still be illegal at the federal level until common sense prevails there as well. But statewide legalization would be a step in the right direction. At least city police wouldn’t be under a sworn obligation to uphold the law in all cases except when the mayor and his administration find it ideologically inconvenient.