In the humid hour leading up to 4:20 on Wednesday afternoon, the day the Manhattan district attorney’s office began not prosecuting most marijuana possession and smoking cases, the green canopy over Union Square was the place to be.
Serene parkgoers lounged in the fenced-off central grassy section while the smoke rose. They crouched over precious pouches to keep out the slight breeze as they fumbled with papers. They sat on benches in business formal and breathed in. Sure, a few played a hackey-sack-like game.
Most were blissfully unaware that they’d decided to partake on the very day that DA Cyrus Vance’s new policy went into effect in the borough. With exceptions for cases of drug sellers and “public safety,” prosecutors would now be declining to pursue your everyday possession or outdoor toke. It’s part of a country- and city-wide evolution on marijuana policy, once much more strict. Now, often closer to a shrug.
“The law doesn’t faze me,” joked one high schooler sitting in a circle of fellow Brooklyn Tech students. They had just started passing around a joint and the group of 16 and 17-year olds agreed that the world had changed sometime between when they first inhaled and the present. A few had gotten in minor legal scraps over marijuana — one was forced to surrender his grinder when cops busted him for using a fake ticket on the Long Island Rail Road. Another had friends who’d been arrested for smoking on the street.
It all seemed pretty silly, the group agreed, considering the legality of what they viewed as more dangerous substances like cigarettes and alcohol. With their substance of choice they had spent time huddled on the school roof, the locker room, “the whole sixth floor.”
“The bathroom’s big,” one noted.
It was nice during summer break to smoke somewhere “more scenic,” another said.
As the students took out music speakers and turned to the other business of the day, writing rap lyrics, Adam, 20, was putting the finishing touches on a loose joint on the other side of the lawn. Adam was from Birmingham, England and said he wasn’t too concerned about smoking in NYC — he figured maybe he’d get a “verbal warning,” which is what sometimes happened back home despite the drug’s illegality there.
“If not, we’ll be deported,” joked his friend, Maria, 21, a Londoner visiting for a few weeks.
Adam noted that he’d once written an essay on weed and how it can be used to comfort those with cancer. He hoped there would be full legalization one day so that it would be easy to buy good, clean weed.
Medical marijuana is legal in New York, but full legalization is still distant — though it has become a topic of conversation in the Democratic gubernatorial primary. In the meantime, Brooklyn’s top prosecutor is making similar moves as Manhattan. The NYPD says it will skip many arrests in lieu of summonses for public smoking starting Sept. 1. With the jumble of competing policies and numerous exceptions, public defenders worry that many of their usual clients will still get caught in the web. In Manhattan, for example, even if your prosecution is declined, you could currently still end up spending hours in custody. You might even be held overnight, waiting for the good news from a tired assistant district attorney while you sit in the general population holding cells at 100 Centre Street.
That felt like a distant worry at least in Union Square on a pleasant afternoon. Police officers weren’t bothering people under the trees. The smell of marijuana gently wafted. A guy selling candy bars and fruit snacks for his basketball team seemed to be keeping busy.