BY TRONE DOWD
In a 48-hour period, both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Gov. Andrew Cuomo took significant steps toward lessening the stigma surrounding recreational marijuana use in New York state law.
Cuomo was the first to make a move after he followed through on his State of the State promise to look into the effects, both positive and negative, of marijuana use. A study commissioned by the governor earlier this year and conducted by the New York state Department of Health (NYSDOH) determined that legalizing the drug would be a plus for New York financially. NYSDOH commissioner Howard Zucker broke the news on Monday morning.
“The report is being finalized, but it concludes the pros of a regulated program outweigh the cons,” Zucker said in a statement on Monday. “The report also concludes that should a regulated program be implemented, special consideration will need to be given to a number of factors, including the age of who can purchase marijuana, who can grow and distribute it, the location of dispensaries and at what rate the product would be taxed. The report raises a number of thoughtful questions and we look forward to delivering it for Gov. Cuomo’s review.”
The next day, as details of the NYSDOH’s report were released, de Blasio followed up on this plan to revise city Police Department policies pertaining to weed-related arrests. Last month, de Blasio first said that he would order police to conduct a 30-day review of what the best course of alternative action would be against drug-related crimes. According to a majority of the City Council and the mayor, people and communities of color have been the primary target for decades, leading to disproportionate arrest numbers between the two groups. In 2017 alone, more than 17,000 people were arrested for low-level marijuana-related offenses in New York City. Of those arrested, 14,530 were people of color.
“Nobody’s destiny should hinge on a minor, non-violent offense,” de Blasio said on Tuesday. “Neighborhood policing has helped to bring officers and community together, but we still have more work to do to right the wrongs in the criminal justice system. This new policy will help reduce unnecessary arrests, while making our city fairer and safer.”
According to the plan, by Sept. 1, a person caught smoking marijuana in public will receive a criminal summons rather than being arrested. According to NYPD projections, this move will likely reduce overall marijuana arrests in New York City by approximately 10,000 per year.
New Yorkers will still be subject to arrest if they are on probation or parole, have existing criminal warrants, don’t have ID on their person or have a recent documented history of violence. They will also be arrested if they are a liability to public safety, such as smoking while driving a car.
Police Commissioner James O’Neill stood by the mayor during the announcement.
“We know that it is not productive to arrest people who have no prior criminal history,” O’Neill said. “In fact, it hampers our efforts to build trust and strengthen relationships with the people we serve, and it does nothing to further the NYPD’s mission of ridding our streets of those responsible for violence and disorder. Issuing summonses for marijuana offenses that do not directly affect public safety will allow our officers to do their jobs effectively and safely, and in a way that always promotes public safety and quality of life for all New Yorkers.”
The legalization of marijuana has drummed up significant support in New York City in recent months. Nearly all City Council members support the notion of either reducing the punishment associated with possession or use of the drug or legalizing it altogether. On the state level, however, this sentiment is not as ubiquitous due to the state Senate’s Republican majority, which has been less supportive of the measure.
In Queens, elected officials praised Cuomo and de Blasio’s initiatives. Queens Borough President Melinda Katz said that both leaders took “major steps” that will bring “us closer to long overdue legalization and justice reform.”
“The state Health Department’s amendment offers a strong tool in the war against the opioid addiction epidemic, and its study commissioned by Gov. Cuomo brings us closer than ever to statewide legalization,” Katz said. “The unfairness in the city’s existing marijuana enforcement policy has been difficult to deny and has propagated unequal treatment within policing for far too long. Mayor de Blasio’s new citywide policy unveiled today will help reduce unnecessary arrests and enhance public trust.”
Councilman Donovan Richards (D-Laurelton), chairman of the council’s Public Safety Committee, said he also supports the new policy.
“Today marks an important step in ensuring the NYPD’s internal disciplinary process is held to the highest standards,” Richards said. “As the NYPD makes a concerted effort to improve police-community relations we must have a department that truly is transparent and holds officers accountable for bad behavior.”
Not everyone was happy with the mayor’s announcement. Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest) said that the mayor’s move doesn’t go far enough as it still leaves room for discrimination in some communities.
“The mayor’s new marijuana enforcement policy is a marginal improvement, but a real missed opportunity to fundamentally change how the city polices marijuana possession and smoking,” Lancman said. “No one should be arrested for smoking marijuana, period.”
Lancman, who is chairman of the City Council’s committee on the Justice System and founder of the committee on criminal justice reform, argued that de Blasio’s policy still allows arrests to be made, even if lives are not in danger.
“The mayor’s policy does not attempt to reduce criminal summonses at all, still allows arrests in circumstances that cannot be justified by public safety, will likely make marijuana policing even more discriminatory toward people of color, continues to expose noncitizens to deportation and takes no steps to eliminate the collateral consequences, which are in the city’s control. The legalization train in New York has left the station. The mayor should get on it,” he said. “In the meantime, our district attorneys should exercise their authority to decline to prosecute these low-level marijuana cases.”
Last month, all Queens Democrats in the City Council sent a letter to Queens District Attorney Richard Brown to call for him to end all low-level marijuana offenses. Despite the overwhelming support, Brown chose not to budge on the matter.
Reach Trone Dowd by email at firstname.lastname@example.org. Reach the Press of Southeast Queens via phone at (718) 357-7400.