Brooklyn - Bushwick

In Bushwick. (Photo: Wally Gobetz’s Flickr)

Last Tuesday, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson announced his office would throw out (some) low-level possession of marijuana cases; on Friday, the NYPD shot back with a memo telling officers that it was business as usual. But as the DA and NYPD clash over the new directive, some critics are saying it doesn’t go far enough.

Under the Brooklyn DA’s new MO, relatively upstanding citizens caught with up to 2 ounces of weed won’t be prosecuted. “I think it’s a great step forward,” said Adam Scavone, attorney and co-founder of the New York Cannabis Alliance. “I think it’s a sign of the changing times and that people are fed up with the unequal enforcement of the marijuana laws in the city of New York and it’s a sensible step toward ending that problem.”

Thompson’s move is a progressive one to be sure, but reform advocates like Scavone say it’s not enough, and that other city officials should take action as well. “I think the City Council should use this as an opportunity to reexamine marjuana law enforcement,” he said. “I think they would be well advised to follow the example set by Seattle and Denver and officially make it the lowest law enforcement priority in the city.”

The New York Cannabis Alliance plans to propose just such a measure to the Council. Scavone said he is currently in negotiations to secure the support of one City Council member, though he declined to say who.

True legalization would certainly fix the conundrum wherein the NYPD is at odds with the DA. As Capital New York reported last week, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said that the DA’s statement “really does not change the working circumstances of police officers who are in the field.” Bratton also confirmed that the NYPD will defend individual officers if accusations of wrongful arrest are brought to court. De Blasio backed up Bratton by emphasizing that NYPD officers have the right to use their discretion when making arrests. 

As things now stand, marijuana cases “take up a significant chunk of prosecutorial time,” according to Scavone, who believes the city spends far too much money going after “criminals” that largely have no negative impact on public health or safety.

Indeed an ACLU report released in June of last year called marijuana arrests “a fiscal fiasco” and revealed that in 2010 alone New York State spent almost $700 million enforcing pot possession laws.

The report also found that in New York City, “the marijuana arrest capital of the country,” racial biases in arrests for marijuana possession well surpassed the national average. In Brooklyn, a black person is almost 10 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person (the ratio is slightly lower in Manhattan).

While the ACLU report says marijuana use is pretty even between between blacks and whites, the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration indicates white users outnumber black users in New York City.

Besides the obvious downsides of being wrung through the judicial system, there are a host of other problems that can emerge when someone is convicted of possessing even a very small amount of marijuana for personal use. Offenders can be denied access to federal student loans and parents can potentially lose custody of their children. NYCHA can deny offenders access to public housing, or even evict them, and can classify them as ineligible for up to four years.

“I don’t think any borough should be making marijuana arrests a priority,” Scavone said.

While the DA’s recent announcement indicates a shift in direction, at least one lawmaker hinted that it wouldn’t amount to much change in practice. Senator Diane Savino, who wrote and helped pass the recently passed medical marijuana bill, told B+B, “He can chose to or not to prosecute. That happens every day with the cases the DA looks at. But he’s obviously making a political statement that he thinks that the law should be changed.”

In last Tuesday’s press release, the Brooklyn DA was careful to emphasize the policy “does not express approval of the use of marijuana,” and not every low-level possession of marijuana charge will be dropped. Defendants must have either a non-existent or very minor criminal record, and if the offense was committed in a public place, “particularly around children,” the DA’s office says it will still go forward with prosecution. Teenagers caught with marijuana will instead be directed to a diversion program.

All of which means you should think twice before taking your bong from your closet to the stoop. Listen, New York is a progressive state in a lot of things,” Senator Savino reminded us. “But drug policy is not one of them, and never has been.”