Analysis: Will the NYPD Really Stop Frivolous Marijuana Arrests?

Published on June 19, 2018 · Last updated July 28, 2020
New York City, New York - May 19, 2011 : The crest on the jacket of a New York City Police Officer while on patrol.
New York City, New York - May 19, 2011 : The crest on the jacket of a New York City Police Officer while on patrol.

The city of New York promised to wind down its decades-old war on marijuana Tuesday, with Mayor Bill De Blasio announcing a new policy limiting trips to a police station over cannabis possession.

“New Yorkers with no priors will receive a summons instead of an arrest for smoking marijuana publicly,” the mayor said. “We believe this will result in thousands of fewer arrests. In fact we think at least 10,000 fewer New Yorkers will be arrested under this policy.”

The change is another step towards ending what critics call a failed war on marijuana, but the reform remains a policy and lacks the force of law. A 63% majority of New York state residents endorse adult-use legalization, but they lack a direct democracy option like California, Colorado, and other states that have used the initiative process to legalize.

New York City makes about 17,500 arrests for marijuana each year, the New York Times reports. Black people in the city are eight times as likely as whites to face a marijuana arrest, despite similar usage levels.

De Blasio has long promised an end to the city’s failed enforcement policy, but marijuana arrests have continued under his administration.

The announcement does not alter cannabis law in New York state or NYC, but rather it offers guidance to NYPD officers, advising them to cite and release most people found with cannabis. No further state law alterations will be made this year, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s spokesperson reportedly said.

Critics pounced on the modest change as proof of past dereliction of duty. Pro-legalization gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon stated: “It shouldn’t have taken Cuomo eight years and the #CynthiaEffect to understand the ‘facts have changed.’”

Because it’s only a mayoral directive, the new policy can be reversed by the next mayor or ignored by the NYPD’s rank-and-file, who may bristle at any limit on their discretion. Earlier this year, police officials told the New York City Council that cannabis arrests are complaint-driven, and that minority communities often complain the most. Indeed, some of legalization’s most vocal critics are faith-based minority leaders, as well as paternalistic progressive Democrats, both of which New York prides itself on. An analysis by the New York Times, however, challenged the complaint-based explanation.

Critics say data shows police prioritize cannabis complaints from neighborhoods of color over white areas. Under the new policy, past drug war victims—people on probation, or parole, or with a record—can still get cuffed and taken to the station over a small amount of cannabis in their possession.

More changes are coming. Manhattan’s district attorney announced his office would not prosecute low-level pot crimes starting Aug. 1.  And New York state’s health department is set to issue a report showing cannabis legalization’s pros outweigh its cons.

“When we were done we realized that the pros outweighed the cons.”

“We looked at the pros, we looked at the cons,” Health Commissioner Howard Zucker said.  “When we were done we realized that the pros outweighed the cons.”

Zucker said the evaluation came at the behest of the governor. That has echoes of the famed LaGuardia Committee report of 1944, which opposed prohibition, finding that “Marihuana is not the determining factor in the commission of major crimes” and “The practice of smoking marihuana does not lead to addiction in the medical sense of the word.”

The LaGuardia report was prepared by the New York Academy of Medicine in 1939 on behalf of by New York Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia, who was against the weed war before it even started.

History is a wheel, and almost 80 years later, New York cannabis consumers are still going round and round.

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David Downs
David Downs
Leafly Senior Editor David Downs is the former Cannabis Editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. He's appeared on The Today Show, and written for Scientific American, The New York Times, WIRED, Rolling Stone, The Onion A/V Club, High Times, and many more outlets. He is a 2023 judge for The Emerald Cup, and has covered weed since 2009.
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