In the last month, over 3000 open cannabis cases against New York residents have been dropped by Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance. This change in Manhattan policy comes in response to public outcry against continued arrests for misdemeanor marijuana use and possession in New York cities, despite cannabis being legal for recreational use in nine states, and medically legal in 30 states, including the state of New York. Cases that could be affected by the DA’s decision date back as far as 1978.
This move by Manhattan’s DA is in line with other recent changes in NYPD policy towards low-level use and possession of cannabis. As of September, New York residents caught smoking cannabis in public will be issued summonses and fines rather than being arrested and having to show up in court. Similar changes in NYPD policy on misdemeanor cannabis possession began as early as 2014. Brooklyn has also taken similar measures to reduce the number of arrests for marijuana possession, “resulting in a 75% decline in arrests citywide and confirming that such a policy does not adversely affect public safety,” according to Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez. Since enacting this change in 2014, the number of prosecutions involving low-level cannabis use or possession in Brooklyn has dropped over 91 percent. New York residents are eager to see additional changes in city and state policy regarding the legality of cannabis.
According to a recent Reuters article, “the action would serve justice and address racial disparities in the prosecution of marijuana offenses.” The NYPD has long been criticized for its impact on communities of color; data collected as recently as 2017 shows that marijuana-related arrests in New York have continued to disproportionately affect people of color. According to District Attorney Vance, “by vacating these warrants, we are preventing unnecessary future interactions with the criminal justice system.”
Such a huge decision on the part of Manhattan’s DA could be a signal to New York residents that larger changes regarding the legality of cannabis are imminent. With other progressive states such as Colorado and Nevada bringing in millions of dollars each month in tax revenue alone, the financial benefit of legalization is becoming hard to ignore. The continued persecution of Manhattan residents for low-level cannabis use or possession is, in fact, hugely expensive for the state and for taxpayers. According to a recent CNN article, prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana-related crime “creates enormous costs for the legal system and alienates too many people.” Says District Attorney Vance, “we made the decision that is really in the interest of justice…we have to actually look at what resources we have, what resources the court has.”
Not all marijuana-related misdemeanor criminal cases will be affected by Vance’s recent decision. Indeed, this action will be limited to cases involving outstanding warrants where defendants failed to show up for their court cases; however, those who have already been convicted of marijuana use or possession will be unaffected. The DA will also continue to pursue more serious marijuana-related charges, such as those involving the criminal sale of marijuana, a felony in the state of New York.