The New York Police Department (NYPD) has recently implemented a new policy aimed at decreasing the number of arrests made for public use of cannabis. As of September 1st, 2018, the NYPD officers will no longer be mandated to arrest people for smoking cannabis in public spaces. Ultimately then, when confronted with public marijuana use, it will be up to the individual NYPD officer’s discretion whether – or not – to make an arrest.
Medical cannabis became legal in the state of New York in 2014. In the same year, in response to rising public discontent, New York City pledged to stop arresting people for possession of small amounts of cannabis. Since then, however, recreational use of cannabis has remained illegal in New York City and NYPD arrests for the use of cannabis in public have continued to occur regularly. Moreover, despite the pledge made by the city, significant racial disparities have remained in the New York City criminal justice system, with arrests for misdemeanor use of marijuana disproportionately affecting people of color.
A Community Disproportionately Targeted by NYPD
According to government published data, in New York City, in the first three months of 2017 alone, over 4,100 people were arrested for the crime of misdemeanor marijuana possession. Of those arrests, over 90% were people of color, despite the fact that marijuana use occurs at similar levels across the board, regardless of a person’s race. Moreover, researchers from the University of Chicago School of Law assert that there is insufficient evidence to support the idea that such arrests, in fact, lead to a decrease in the rate of serious crimes being committed, arguing that such strategies are more “likely to simply divert scarce police resources away from more effective approaches that research suggests is capable of reducing real crime.”
This new NYPD policy hopes to affect the substantial disparities in policing behaviors towards white people and people of color, specifically regarding public cannabis use. According to NYPD Chief Rodney Harrison, the major goal of the new policy is “to see a humongous drop in people in communities of color being arrested for marijuana.” New York City Mayor De Blasio has also expressed support for the initiative, including requesting that the NYPD issue summonses for possession of small amounts of cannabis, rather than misdemeanors, lowering the penalty for possession to a fine of $100. According to a New York Times article published in June, changes in NYPD policy are in line with previous promises by Governor Andrew Cuomo and his administration to make cannabis legal across the entire state.
Supporters of the NYPD’s recent change in policy regarding public marijuana use argue that previous efforts have not gone nearly far enough and hope that this new policy could bring about much-needed changes for those communities of color which have been most affected. Although this policy will make public use of cannabis decriminalized, driving while smoking cannabis will still be an arrestable offense. Furthermore, those with outstanding warrants or prior criminal records may still be apprehended by police for public use of cannabis.