The NYPD arrests tens of thousands of people a year for marijuana possession. The person is stopped, forced by police to empty their pockets, patted down and handcuffed. Police remove the cuffs after a ride to the police station to be processed and fingerprinted, putting the person in America’s criminal justice system. They hold the person — often for hours — in the company of real criminals, charge them with a misdemeanor and let them go.
Under a new plan, that would all change.
NYC Police Commissioner William Bratton announced Monday a change to the practice of arresting low-level marijuana offenders. The new plan allows police to issue a summons to suspects in possession of less than 25 grams of dry marijuana. The summons represents a violation of penal law and does not carry a criminal record. The punishment is a $100 fine.
Marijuana.com reported yesterday that the de Blasio administration may be ending the buy-and-bust program. Seemingly in response to the assertions made by the New York Post, the mayor made his official plan clear at a Monday press conference. At first glance, it can look like decriminalization, but NYC hasn’t crossed that hurdle.
Unlike decriminalization in nearby Philadelphia, certain people are not eligible to receive a simple fine. Offenders with an active warrant or wanted in connection with an active investigation, will still be arrested and charged for the marijuana as a misdemeanor. Offenders remain ineligible for reduced penalties if they are charged with another fingerprintable offense or have no identification.
The Drug Policy Alliance, a leading advocate for change, was cautiously optimistic in a statement about the change. Gabriel Sayegh said that the mayor is doing the right thing by stopping arrests, but expressed concerns. Sayegh serves as Managing Director of Policy and Campaigns for the group. He said this is a first step rather than a solution, citing other problems with marijuana policy. Further steps are needed to address racial disparities, address police tactics and set standards, Sayegh said.
NYPD News said officers will issue the offender a summons “unless conditions warrant processing at a Department facility.” It’s unclear what those conditions might be. That has advocates worried about abuse of discretion.
“What will the process be for determining who is arrested and who is given a summons?” Asked the DPA statement.
Chicago faced a similar question in August of 2012 when it passed its version of decriminalization. Officers were to use their discretion under the ordinance to ticket people for minor marijuana crimes. The law didn’t live up to expectations in practice.
After 14 months, The Chicago Sun-Times reported that arrests dropped by 2,430 during the first seven months of 2013 compared with the previous year. The drop accounted for a 21% reduction, but 9,269 people were still arrested and processed. The Sun Times declared the marijuana ticket program a bust.
Whether the NYPD policy change has the desired effects will come down to how it is enforced.