New York City to Overhaul Marijuana Arrest Policy to Fight Racial Disparities

In neighborhoods where individuals called about marijuana at the same rate, arrests were higher in the area with more black and Latino residents.

The city is revamping its marijuana arrest policy. MARTIN BERNETTI/AFP/Getty Images

New York City will overhaul and reform its policies related to marijuana possession arrests amid persisting racial disparities in enforcement despite a policy change in 2014.

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On Tuesday, Police Commissioner James O’Neill announced the formation of a 30-day working group to review the police department’s marijuana enforcement policy.

The working group will be made up of a “diverse cross-section” of NYPD executive leadership to assess the police department’s policies and procedures concerning arrests and summonses for marijuana-related offenses, the NYPD said. The group will also seek outside expert opinion from advocates, advocacy organizations, attorneys, the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice and other nonprofit organizations.

Speaking at the Center for American Progress’ 2018 Ideas Conference in Washington, D.C. early Tuesday afternoon, de Blasio said the city will reform and revamp its policy within the next 30 days.

Last year, 86 percent of individuals arrested for low-level marijuana possession in the five boroughs were black and Hispanic, and less than nine percent were white. National studies have also found that the use of marijuana is equal among races.

“We must and we will end unnecessary arrests and end disparity in enforcement,” de Blasio said. “It’s time for those to be a thing of the past in New York City and all over this country. This is the kind of change we can make, but we can make it because of all the changes that came before and this is the point I will conclude with: each change builds the next one.”

These disparities remain despite the fact that the city announced a new policy in 2014 that states that officers should issue a summons instead of arresting someone if they are in possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana—as long as there is no warrant for the individual’s arrest and the individual has identification. Officers can, however, make arrests if the marijuana is burning or if the type of possession demonstrates intent to sell.

There were 61,000 marijuana arrests in de Blasio’s first three years as mayor. Under the late former Mayor Ed Koch, there were 6,000 arrests and under former Mayor David Dinkins’ tenure, there were 3,000 arrests. Under former Mayor Rudy Giuliani, it was 18,000 and former Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s tenure saw 112,000 arrests.

O’Neill said that over the past four years, top charge marijuana arrests citywide are down 32 percent, while the issuance of summonses is up 57 percent, and that overall calls for service from the public about marijuana are up 26 percent.

“The NYPD does not target people based on race or other demographics,” he said. “Among the reasons for enforcement are officer observations and community complaints received from 911 and 311 calls, and from meetings like tenant associations, community councils, and Build The Block sector meetings with neighborhood police officers.”

But he said that there are differences in arrest rates and that they have persisted going back many years, “long before the current administration.”

“We need an honest assessment about why they exist and balance it in the context of the public safety needs of all communities,” O’Neill continued. “The NYPD will review our practices to ensure enforcement is consistent with the values of fairness and trust at the root of neighborhood policing. The NYPD has no interest in arresting New Yorkers for marijuana offenses when those arrests have no impact on public safety.”

At a City Council hearing on Monday, Queens Councilman Rory Lancman, chairman of the Committee on Justice Systems, asked the city’s five district attorneys to decline to prosecute individuals who are arrested for low-level marijuana possession for misdemeanors. On Tuesday, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance announced that his office will no longer prosecute the majority of low-level offenses.

Separate reports by POLITICO, The New York Times and New York Daily News that found that the majority of marijuana arrests are not occurring in neighborhoods in which individuals make the largest number of 911 and 311 complaints. This dealt a blow to the NYPD, which insisted the racial disparities in marijuana enforcement stemmed from community complaints.

And the Times found that even when the number of marijuana complaints in majority-white neighborhoods and majority-minority neighborhoods is the same, black and Hispanic individuals were arrested up to 10 times more than white individuals.

During the hearing, O’Neill said a lot of the complaints are not made via 911 and 311 and said that the NYPD is “looking to see why the disparity exists.”

De Blasio seemed to signal a shift in his position on the issue of racial disparities in marijuana enforcement.

During his “Mondays with the Mayor” segment with NY1’s Errol Louis on Monday night, he said that in 2017, the city drove down the number of arrests, noting there were roughly 100,000 fewer arrests overall than just three years prior. He also said that NYPD reduced marijuana arrests by about 38,000 since four years ago and that the city stopped arresting people for low-level possession.

But he said the city has “to do better” and that there is “no question about it.”

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), which has been leading a campaign to tackle racial disparities in marijuana enforcement, pointed out that last year, de Blasio blasted the DPA over its report outlining the 60,000 arrests, referring to it misleading.

Kassandra Frederique, DPA’s New York State director, expressed frustration over the mayor’s reluctance to accept the facts.

Public Advocate Letitia James praised the mayor’s announcement.

“While I continue to advocate for the legalization of marijuana in New York, I commend Mayor de Blasio’s commitment to studying the negative impacts of marijuana arrests in our neighborhoods,” James said in a statement. “It is an important first step in ensuring fair enforcement practices and eliminating the unfair criminalization of communities of color that has persisted for far too long.”

City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, civil rights leader Rev. Al Sharpton and Kirsten John Foy of the National Action Network (NAN), Lancman, Donovan Richards, chairman of the Council’s Committee on Public Safety and other Council members held a press conference at City Hall on Tuesday morning to denounce racial disparities in marijuana arrests.

The Council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus praised the “show of solidarity” by Johnson and Sharpton with communities of color who “first sounded the alarm” about the disparities.
“The work of the Council in highlighting the department’s innate prejudice towards blacks and Latinos was instrumental in prompting the subsequent policy overhaul announcement by the administration,” the caucus said in a statement. “It’s vital that this reexamination be a collaborative effort undertaken with the direct involvement of these aggrieved communities, as represented by the Black, Latino/a and Asian Caucus, whose experiences on this and other policing issues will be crucial to ensuring a just solution.”

At the press conference, they called for individuals to receive summonses for low-level marijuana possession instead of being arrested. While they argued that it was a step that would help New Yorkers of color, they argued that it is not enough to address racial disparities in policing.

“The numbers don’t make any sense,” Johnson said. “They don’t match, you go precinct by precinct, call by call and the numbers don’t add up. It made me angry to see that.”

Sharpton drew parallells between the NYPD’s marijuana enforcement policy and the stop-and-frisk policing method.

“The grandchild of stop-and-frisk is marijuana arrests based on race,” he said. “When you look at the fact that the 911 calls do not match the arrests, when you look at the fact that there are more arrests in a black dominated district like Queens Village as opposed to Forest Hills… it is a clear racial pattern as it was with stop-and-frisk.”

They also reiterated calls for marijuana to be legalized in New York.

First Lady Chirlane McCray, gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon and James all said they support legalization. Cuomo announced a study that would look into the issue, which the mayor said he supports but neither have come out in support of legalization.

City Comptroller Scott Stringer also released an analysis on Tuesday morning, which estimates a potential $3.1 billion adult-use marijuana market for New York State, including a $1.1 billion New York City market. He also said that the city could realize $336 million in tax revenue from legalizing adult-use marijuana on top of $436 million for the state.

New York City to Overhaul Marijuana Arrest Policy to Fight Racial Disparities