Today, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio's administration announced through the New York Times that it may stop making arrests for low-level marijuana possession, opting instead to issue tickets without detaining the suspect. This would feel like an important step toward reasonable weed policy if New York state hadn't already mandated it 37 years ago.
New York's Marijuana Reform Act, signed into law in 1977 by then-governor Hugh Carey, says that possession of up to 25 grams of pot should treated as a violation, like a traffic ticket, and punished with up to a $100 fine on first offense. The NYPD, however, routinely ignores this law—mostly when it comes to people of color—making thousands of possession arrests per year by exploiting a loophole that says your weed can't be in public view. (You're carrying a joint when an officer stops you and asks you to empty your pockets. You comply, and suddenly your once-private pot is out in public, and therefore criminal.)
The de Blasio announcement, then, is not so much a heroic step forward for equality as a simple catching up with the legislative minds of the disco era. Moreover, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson—whose office has made good on a promise to throw out small possession cases, effectively decriminalizing weed within the borough—points out that the administration's new policy may mean more smokers end up punished, at least in Brooklyn. From the Times:
Since July, the Brooklyn district attorney's office has dismissed 849 misdemeanor marijuana cases involving police arrests, or about 34 percent of the total 2,526 such cases in Brooklyn.
Under the proposed changes, it appears that instead of being arrested, those given a ticket for marijuana will be told to appear in a courtroom. But the new policy could push prosecutors out of the process, because summonses issued without an accompanying arrest generally do not receive prosecutorial review.
"In order to give the public confidence in the fairness of the criminal justice system, these cases should be subject to prosecutorial review," Mr. Thompson said. "By allowing these cases to avoid early review, by issuing a summons, there is a serious concern that many summonses will be issued without the safeguards currently in place. These cases will move forward even when due process violations might have occurred."
Details of the plan haven't yet been announced, so it's unclear whether the policy will bring New York City enforcement in line with the state's 25-gram rule or establish a different limit. If it means that fewer people end up with an arrest record for carrying around a dime bag, great, but it shouldn't be heralded for anything more than it is: a concession that—fine, if they have to—New York City cops will start obeying the law.
[Image via AP]