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District Attorneys Take Steps To Relax Marijuana Enforcement

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With Mayor Bill de Blasio announcing that the NYPD will change its marijuana enforcement policy next month, two of the city's five district attorneys have said they plan to change how they prosecute marijuana offenses.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said he would stop prosecuting cases of marijuana possession and smoking in public. “The dual mission of the Manhattan D.A.’s Office is a safer New York and a more equal justice system,” said Vance said, in a statement emailed to reporters. “The ongoing arrest and criminal prosecution of predominantly black and brown New Yorkers for smoking marijuana serves neither of these goals."

A WNYC report in February found 86 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession and smoking in New York City during 2017 were black and Hispanic.

Most marijuana cases that are prosecuted involve smoking in public, not possession, about 5,500 in 2017 according to Vance's office. The office said the new policy could result in a 96 percent reduction, to just a couple of hundred per year. Vance pointedly said there may be safety exceptions to his policy. He invited the mayor and police commissioner to weigh in before August. He also released a six-month study of marijuana legalization in other states with recommendations for what New York should do if it follows suit, such as including recommendations from prosecutors to avoid future enforcement problems.

Also on Tuesday, Brooklyn D.A. Eric Gonzalez said his office has begun to decline to prosecute some instances of pot smoking in public where there's no nuisance. But by granting exceptions, both may be leaving room to continue prosecuting people with more serious records such as felony convictions. 

The most common misdemeanor marijuana charge, Possession in the 5th Degree, refers to both marijuana possession and smoking in public. Last year, WNYC found the Brooklyn D.A. had prosecuted more than 80 percent of all low-level marijuana offenses—despite pledging to reduce prosecutions. Gonzalez explained that was because his office continued to prosecute cases of smoking in public.

Critics of the current system praised the changes but called for more action. 

"This is a welcome shift, but declining to prosecute cases is nonetheless a bandage on a gaping wound," said Melissa Moore, deputy state director of the Drug Policy Alliance's New York chapter. "Arrests for low-level marijuana possession need to end, period. An arrest in and of itself is a traumatic event and has a bevy of damaging consequences regardless of how a case is prosecuted."

She continued, "If elected officials are serious about upholding the rights of all New Yorkers, they need to end marijuana prohibition now and create a system to tax and regulate marijuana."

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson and National Action Network Al Sharpton on Tuesday also both called for legalization.

Bronx District Attorney Darcel Clark urged the NYPD to issue summonses when they see someone smoking pot instead of bringing them through the system. "This will spare all Bronxites from undergoing arrest for these offenses, and allow the NYPD and the Bronx District Attorney’s Office to investigate and prosecute violent crimes, which are a threat to public safety," she said in a statement.

WNYC's Data News team analyzed how often bail was set during 2017 for low level marijuana possession and smoking.  For cases that moved on after an arraignment—meaning they weren't dismissed or set to be dismissed if the defendant stayed out of trouble—the numbers were low but varied by borough. In the Bronx bail was set in 0.72 percent cases, compared to 3.35 percent in Brooklyn, 4.64 percent in Manhattan, 10.18 percent in Queens and 5.66 percent in Staten Island. Our data came from the state's Office of Court Administration and was provided to us by The Marshall Project.

 

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