NYPD will start using summonses, not arrests, for marijuana
NEW YORK — Lighting up a joint in the Big Apple could lighten some wallets, but won't lead to handcuffs in most cases once New York City's revamped marijuana enforcement policy goes into effect on Labor Day weekend.
Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday police officers will shift to issuing criminal summonses for public marijuana smoking starting Sept. 1 — a move he estimates will eliminate at least 10,000 arrests a year. The Democrat ordered the overhaul last month after a report showed persistent racial gaps in marijuana arrests.
"Nobody's destiny should hinge on a minor non-violent offense," said de Blasio.
Officers will still arrest suspected smokers if they are on parole or probation, have an open warrant, a violent criminal history or fail to show identification, Chief of Patrol Rodney Harrison said. Getting high while driving also will lead to arrest, he said.
Kassandra Frederique, the New York state director of Drug Policy Alliance, said the exceptions signaled authorities still feel "certain groups of people deserve to be criminalized" and that the city had "found a way to skirt the issue on racial disparities."
Frederique called the summonses, which require a trip to court and payment of a $100 fine, a "backdoor into the criminal justice system" because people who miss their court date could wind up with a warrant out for their arrest.
Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez supported the policy change and said he was working on a process to seal the records of thousands of people with marijuana-related convictions, which can impede their ability to get a job or secure housing.
"We must bring a sense of fairness to the past at the same time we implement these new enforcement policies," said Gonzalez. "We are moving toward a reality in which marijuana will no longer serve as an entry way to our criminal justice system, with all the attendant collateral consequences."
New York set out to change its marijuana enforcement policy in May after The New York Times reported blacks in the city were eight times more likely to be arrested on low-level marijuana charges as whites.
Soon after, Gonzalez and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said they would scale back marijuana-related prosecutions and police convened a group to study the policy with input from academics, community leaders and others.
"The NYPD is not in the business of making criminals out of people with no prior arrest history," said Police Commissioner James O'Neill, denying officers were targeting anyone based on race. "We know that's not productive."
Marijuana is illegal in New York state except for medical use on a strictly regulated basis, but the state's top health official said Monday that an upcoming report on the issue will recommend legalization.
The legislature is scheduled to adjourn for the year this week, suggesting it won't consider legalization until 2019 at the earliest — leaving local authorities and critics to spar over how smokers are treated under the existing law.
New York Civil Liberties Union executive director Donna Lieberman said the city's new policy is an improvement, but "not nearly enough to end counterproductive and discriminatory policing that has disproportionate and harmful impacts on communities of color."
Kevin Sabet, the president of the anti-legalization organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana, encouraged police to run an awareness campaign to remind people that marijuana remains illegal.
"We have spent a decade now to reverse the immense problem of tobacco," said Sabet, a former Obama administration drug policy adviser. "It makes no sense to roll out the red carpet for marijuana."
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