New York City Officials Vow to Revamp Marijuana Policy

By Alfonso Serrano May 16, 2018

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio on Tuesday (May 16) announced that the city’s police department will revamp its marijuana enforcement policies to reduce arrests that have disproportionately targeted Black and Latinx New Yorkers for decades.

In a speech in Washington D.C., de Blasio said the New York Police Department (NYPD) will reform its policies within the next month, but he did not provide further detail. "I’m announcing today that the NYPD will overhaul its marijuana enforcement policies in the next 30 days," de Blasio later tweeted. "We must end unnecessary arrests and end disparity in enforcement."

The announcement comes as the district attorneys for Manhattan and Brooklyn say they plan to drastically limit the prosecution of cannabis-related offenses, including ending prosecutions for smoking in public and marijuana possession, which have unfairly singled out Black and Latinx people.

"The dual mission of the Manhattan D.A.’s Office is a safer New York and a more equal justice system," Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said in a statement Tuesday. "The ongoing arrest and criminal prosecution of predominantly Black and Brown New Yorkers for smoking marijuana serves neither of these goals."

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez told press that his office has already stopped prosecuting cases of cannabis smoking in public where there is no nuisance. 

The dual announcements come as New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer unveiled a study on Tuesday that estimates the annual New York state marijuana market at $3.1 billion, with $1.1 billion of that centered in New York City. Tax revenues from these markets, according to Stringer, will yield about $1.3 billion annually.

"The conversations about overpolicing of marijuana in primarily communities of color and the economic potential that legalization represents are clearly intertwined," Kassandra Frederique, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. "With tax revenue estimates of more than $1 billion, New York policymakers must prioritize repairing the harms caused by prohibition in committees of color across the state."

Although drug reform advocates like Frederique welcomed the flurry of cannabis-related news, they remain weary that, in the absence of codified law, future law enforcement policies will continue to target communities of color. Mayor de Blasio’s announcement offered few details. And the Manhattan and Brooklyn DAs vowed to limit prosecutions for low-level offenses—not stop them—by focusing on people with criminal records.

"The people that are going to have records are folks that live in neighborhoods that are overpoliced and targeted for enforcement," Scott Hechinger, director of policy at Brooklyn Defender Services, told The New York Times.

Despite similar rates of marijuana use among Whites and people of color, a report from The Times earlier this week found that the NYPD historically disproportionately targets Black and Latinx people. Citywide, Black people are arrested at eight times the rate of their White counterparts, while in Manhattan, Blacks are arrested at 15 times the rate of Whites.

Previous national studies have found similar disparities. And despite a dramatic drop in overall arrests in states that have legalized the drug, biased policing continues, according to several reports.