National News

De Blasio Vows to Slash Marijuana Enforcement: ‘We Will End Unnecessary Arrests’

Posted May 15, 2018 3:20 p.m. EDT

NEW YORK — Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday that the New York Police Department would have a plan within 30 days to slash arrests for marijuana possession, although he did not provide any details about how enforcement would change.

“The NYPD will overhaul and reform its policies related to marijuana enforcement in the next 30 days,” de Blasio said. “We must and we will end unnecessary arrests and end disparity in enforcement.”

The mayor’s comments — a turnabout from defending marijuana arrest tactics during his administration — followed the publication of a New York Times story Sunday documenting the enormous racial gap in marijuana enforcement. Across the city, black people were arrested on low-level marijuana charges at eight times the rate of white people over the past three years.

A senior police official had said in February that the reason for the racial gap was that more residents in predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods were calling to complain about marijuana. But the Times article showed that among neighborhoods where people called about marijuana at the same rate, the police almost always made arrests at a higher rate in the area with more black residents.

The mayor’s announcement highlighted the huge discretion afforded the city to enforce the state’s marijuana law as police officials see fit. De Blasio had previously deferred to the state law prohibiting marijuana use when asked about city policies and said he was not prepared to support legalizing the drug.

Although de Blasio did not say what kind of arrests he deemed unnecessary, the police commissioner, James P. O’Neill, hinted Monday that he was concerned about the police arresting so many people on marijuana charges who had no previous criminal record.

O’Neill said that 36 percent of people arrested on marijuana charges last year had no criminal history.

“That’s not what I’m looking for,” O’Neill said, adding, “I acknowledge this does not help us reduce crime.”

Eliminating arrests for people without a criminal record would reduce the number of people pulled into the criminal justice system and keep them from facing consequences when they apply for jobs or housing or have to deal with immigration issues. But because black and Hispanic people have been the primary targets of low-level enforcement in New York City for decades, they are also more likely to have been arrested before on marijuana or other minor charges and have a criminal record in the first place.

The mayor’s comments, delivered at a progressive policy conference in Washington that he had already planned to attend, came as the district attorneys in Brooklyn and Manhattan were working on plans to stop prosecuting the vast majority of people arrested for marijuana.

The Brooklyn District Attorney’s Office, which in 2014 decided to stop prosecuting many low-level marijuana cases, is considering expanding its policy so that more people currently subject to arrest on marijuana charges, including those who smoke outside without creating a public nuisance, would not be prosecuted, one official familiar with the discussions said.

The Manhattan District Attorney’s Office, which last year decided to lighten penalties for some marijuana offenders, would decline to prosecute all but several hundred low-level marijuana cases annually under the plan, with some exceptions for people with serious criminal histories, a second official said.

Defense lawyers have questioned why the policies under consideration carve out exceptions for people with criminal histories. Research has found no good evidence that marijuana arrests are associated with reductions in serious crime in New York City.

Defense lawyers have also expressed concern that giving prosecutors discretion to decide what constitutes a public nuisance would let them continue prosecuting many cases.