New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio has ordered the New York Police Department this weekend to stop arresting people who smoke weed in public. He directed police authorities to instead issue a summons to anyone smoking marijuana in a public space.
Currently, publicly smoking pot can lead to an arrest, while possession of small amounts of the drug can lead to a summons.
It was in November 2014 when de Blasio and then-police commissioner Bill Bratton had announced their plan to give out tickets and court summonses to New Yorkers caught in possession of no more than 25 grams of cannabis rather than make citywide arrests. The then-new guidelines for police officers were intended to reduce the time they spend on petty crimes.
Forming a new task force
As the mayor had instructed, the NYPD already formed a working group to evaluate its cannabis enforcement procedures. The task force will present its recommendations in 30 days.
NYPD Deputy Commissioner of Public Information Phil Walzak said that the working group is reviewing public smoking and possession of weed to ensure that enforcement is consistent with the values of trust and fairness, while also addressing community concerns and promoting public safety.
Why change law enforcement guidelines now?
Mayor de Blasio made it clear that ending arrests related to public weed smoking is one of the changes he wants to implement. However, any changes to the NYPD’s policy on public weed smoking won’t take effect until the end of summer.
The mayor’s directive is partially a follow-up on his announcement last week that he would “overhaul and reform” marijuana enforcement as it has created wide racial disparity in weed-related arrests. De Blasio publicly called on the police to plan for changes to its cannabis enforcement policies in the next month.
Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance also announced that starting August 1, he would stop prosecuting cannabis possession and smoking cases.
Preparing for cannabis legalization in the near future
De Blasio’s call to stop public pot smoking arrests is also seen by many as a move to ease the city into the inevitable full-on legalization of recreational cannabis.
Mayor de Blasio and New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo both oppose cannabis legalization, but it seems that they are preparing the entire state of New York for it and for shift in policy regardless of their position and their actions.
The mayor told the New York Daily News that with cannabis legalization likely to take place in the state soon, it is imperative that NYC plans for the health, public safety, and financial consequences that come along with it. According to de Blasio, while he still has his concerns, he sees the importance of working through and that any responsible policymaker has to prepare for this eventuality.
The mayor had previously cited concerns over “the corporatization” of marijuana.
He added that his focus now is to help create the regulatory framework that should come before cannabis legalization happens.
Racial disparity in marijuana arrests
Cannabis would still remain illegal in NYC, but this initial policy step to stop pot smoking arrests is intended to address a statistic reported by the New York Times that, compared to white, non-Hispanic NYC residents, African-Americans are eight times more likely to be arrested on misdemeanor marijuana charges. In fact, in Manhattan alone, black people had been arrested at a rate 15 times higher than white people.
Advocates are happy
The National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) is pleased to hear about de Blasio’s latest move. In a statement, NORML Political Director Justin Strekal said that deBlasio’s evolution regarding marijuana’s criminal status is “encouraging to see” and that he hopes the City Council would reinforce the policy directive to completely remove civil and criminal penalties for possession of weed and to expunge prior marijuana possession convictions.
He further said that, with a clear public mandate supporting the outright legalization of cannabis for NYC, it is time to remove law enforcement’s ability to harass otherwise law abiding citizens, especially people of color.