Last month, in response to new evidence that the NYPD is misrepresenting its reasons for overwhelmingly targeting minorities in marijuana arrests, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner James O'Neill promised to do something about the persistent enforcement disparities. A week later, they announced a new task force, and said that in the meantime the city would stop arresting people for smoking pot. On Tuesday, the mayor officially rolled out that policy—along with a host of exceptions that some reform advocates and local lawmakers say will significantly water down the directive.
Starting on September 1st, NYPD officers will be directed to issue criminal court summonses—$100 for a first offense—to those caught smoking marijuana, rather than making a misdemeanor arrest. The policy shift will not apply if the person caught is on parole or probation, has a misdemeanor or felony warrant, does not have identification, is categorized as a violent offender, or is behind the wheel of a car. Officers may also continue to arrest those who they feel pose a legitimate public safety threat.
The lengthy list of exceptions, combined with the fact that pot-smokers will still be dragged through the criminal court system, has advocates wondering whether the new policy will make much of a difference.
"Issuing criminal summons is still sweeping all of these cases into the criminal justice system, so our clients' experiences on the street won't change much at all," Scott Levy, an attorney with the Bronx Defender Services, told Gothamist on Tuesday. "It's not really clear what they're trying to accomplish with this policy—either marijuana should be something that brings people through the criminal process, or it shouldn't be."
"Plus, all these carve outs will wind up exacerbating racial disparities," he added, noting that the probation and parole exception was particularly problematic, and will end up exempting the very people who are most likely to face severe consequences for smoking.
"It's Ferguson all over again—issuing citations that young minority kids (and maybe older ones) can't pay, with the result of an arrest warrant being issued," echoed Jeffrey Fagan, a law professor at Columbia University, who specializes in police accountability and criminal law. "Second is why not civil summons, to avoid 'marking' someone in case of future criminal justice contact with cops or courts?"
A mayoral spokesperson directed a Gothamist inquiry about the nature of the summonses to the NYPD's Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Phillip Walzak, who said that the decision to issue criminal summons was made because switching to civil summons would require legislative action. Asked why the policy isn't going into effect until after the summer, when arrests rates are highest, he said the department needed time to prepare to implement the policy.
In response to Mayor de Blasio's announcement about new policies for marijuana arrests, @VOCALNewYork & @DrugPolicyOrg released the following statement. Join us tomorrow at Noon for a Marijuana Justice Rally at the steps of City Hall. More info: https://t.co/CFtCALErch pic.twitter.com/mmhhEFx5g1
— Drug Policy Alliance (@DrugPolicyOrg) June 19, 2018
One consequence of NYC’s new pot policy: if an immigrant is given a summons for smoking instead of being arrested they’re not fingerprinted. Won’t come to attention of DHS and ICE.
— Beth Fertig (@bethfertig) June 19, 2018
The Mayor’s new marijuana enforcement policy is a marginal improvement, but a real missed opportunity to fundamentally change how the City polices marijuana possession and smoking.
My full statement: pic.twitter.com/7Pl85vNFcG
— (((Rory Lancman))) (@RoryLancman) June 19, 2018
"Nobody's destiny should hinge on a minor non-violent offense," the mayor said in a statement. As WNYC's Beth Fertig notes, those who receive summonses will not be fingerprinted, which could potentially limit an immigrant's contact with Immigrations and Customs Enforcement.
While marijuana arrests have gone down since de Blasio took office, nearly 17,000 people were still arrested last year for possession or smoking in public. Of the 4,081 people arrested on possession charges in the first three months of 2018, 93 percent were people of color, according to data released by the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.
In the view of NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman, Tuesday's exception-laden shift in policing tactics will do little to change that fact. "Substituting summonses for arrests is certainly an improvement, but not nearly enough to end counterproductive and discriminatory policing that has disproportionate and harmful impacts on communities of color," she said in a statement. "For New York to achieve common sense criminal justice and public health policies we need to legalize marijuana at the state level."
But despite growing momentum, statewide legalization is unlikely to happen this year, thanks to Republican control of the state senate. De Blasio, meanwhile, maintains "real concerns" about legalization, even as the state's top health officials are endorsing the measure.
"The legalization train in New York has left the station," noted City Councilmember Rory Lancman. "The Mayor should get on it."