Will New York legalize marijuana? Manhattan DA to decline prosecutions starting Aug. 1

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance will not prosecute marijuana possession or smoking cases in the borough starting Wednesday.

Two exceptions to the policy include cases against those who possess 10 bags or more of marijuana for sale and against those who demonstrate a public safety threat, according to Vance’s office. The policy, which was first announced in May, follows a report from his office that detailed how black and Hispanic people living in neighborhoods of color were arrested at a much higher rate for marijuana-related crimes than those living in predominantly white neighborhoods.

“Every day I ask our prosecutors to keep Manhattan safe and make our justice system more equal and fair,” Vance said in a statement, predicting a 96 percent decrease in marijuana-related prosecutions in the borough, from 5,000 to fewer than 200 per year. “The needless criminalization of pot smoking frustrates this core mission, so we are removing ourselves from this equation.”

Vance continues to argue for marijuana legalization at the state level, adding that there is no “public safety rationale” for the continued prosecution of marijuana-related cases and “no moral justification” for the racial disparities found in them.

“Tomorrow, our office will exit a system wherein smoking a joint can ruin your job, your college application, or your immigration status, but our advocacy will continue,” he said on Tuesday.

Vance has also been working with criminal justice advocacy groups to seal past marijuana conviction records, according to his office.

The move from the Manhattan DA follows a turning tide of sorts in New York state, where marijuana legalization has been getting support from elected officials.

Decriminalization efforts

New York City is taking tentative steps toward addressing the impact of marijuana policies on minority communities.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., shown on May 10, will not prosecute marijuana possession or smoking cases starting Aug. 1.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr., shown on May 10, will not prosecute marijuana possession or smoking cases starting Aug. 1. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

On June 19, Mayor Bill de Blasio, along with the NYPD, announced a new city policy under which New Yorkers caught smoking marijuana publicly will be issued a summons, instead of undergoing arrest. The policy will go into effect Sept. 1 and will reduce marijuana-related arrests by 10,000 per year, de Blasio had said.

There are, however, several exceptions to the policy that officers “have discretion on how to exercise their enforcement powers” over, according to a statement released at the time. People who are on parole or probation, have existing criminal warrants, lack identification, have a recent history of violence or cause a public safety risk by smoking pot can still be arrested by the NYPD.

The policy is the result of a 30-day Marijuana Working Group, a task force assembled by the NYPD to resolve racial disparities in marijuana-related arrests outlined in Vance’s report. Many critics, however, were cynical about the policy’s ability to do just that.

Demographic data for summonses are not made available to the public, like arrest data are, which means racial disparities will only be hidden and not resolved, Communities United for Police Reform spokeswoman Monifa Bandele had told amNewYork at the time.

In addition to the Manhattan DA’s announcement, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez also released a report boasting a 91 percent drop in the prosecution of low-level marijuana offenses by his office on July 27. Marijuana-related cases accepted for prosecution declined from 349 in January to 29 in June, out of which only eight resulted in a misdemeanor conviction. The rest ended in pleas or noncriminal charges, according to the DA’s office.

Only proclamations, however, are not enough, Legal Aid Society attorney Anthony Posada said via telephone in May. While Vance’s announcement is progress in the sense that it lets Gov. Andrew Cuomo know where Manhattan stands on the issue, a statewide legalization is the only way substantive transformation can occur, he had said.

“The law still remains on the books. The law carries the weight of probable cause to make these arrests,” Posada said.

Cuomo’s about-face

From calling marijuana a “gateway drug” in 2017 to inching closer to accepting the inevitability of legalization, Cuomo has held several different stances on the issue.

Cuomo signed the Compassionate Care Act in July 2014, which legalized medical marijuana for patients who are certified by medical practitioners as having “serious” conditions, including cancer, AIDS, severe chronic pain, severe nausea and other ailments. In 2017, Cuomo called marijuana a “gateway drug.” In January 2018, he changed his position and ordered a study from the Department of Health to obtain facts and determine the impact of legalization in New York, the results of which were released on July 13.

The 74-page report released by DOH estimated approximately $700 million in tax revenue from the sale of the drug. Legalizing marijuana for ages 21 and above would not significantly raise smoking rates and will help in reducing racial disparity, the report stipulated. While DOH stated that it will be critical to regulate the marijuana industry and educate young adults about marijuana-related harm, the health agency came out in full support of legalization.

In response, Cuomo told a group of reporters the same day that he thinks the situation around marijuana is “changing,” according to the New York Times. While Cuomo did not come out blazing in support of marijuana legalization, he wondered about the logistics, asking the who, where and what questions regarding the sale of the drug, the Times report detailed. Cuomo did not expect any laws related to the issue before 2019, according to the Times.

Krueger’s legalization bill

Several versions of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, sponsored by State Sen. Liz Krueger, have circulated in the Senate since 2013, but never got any sizable attention, she said at a Cannabis Law Summit in May. As Massachusetts plans to start sales this fall, and other states debate legalization, fewer lawmakers are looking at her like she is crazy, she said.

“As I knew we would see, the world did not end with legalization state by state,” Krueger said at the panel discussion, “Overview of Adult-Use Legislation in New York and New Jersey,” in Times Square, adding that the momentum has been building toward getting her colleagues on board with the idea. “It’s been not in a rush for five years, and it feels like we are getting really close.”

Christopher Alexander from the Drug Policy Alliance (from left), state Sen. Liz Krueger, Malik Burnett from Prevision Strategies and Analytics, and Amol Sinha from the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union discuss legalization of recreational marijuana at the Cannabis Law Summit in midtown Manhattan on Thursday, May 18.
Christopher Alexander from the Drug Policy Alliance (from left), state Sen. Liz Krueger, Malik Burnett from Prevision Strategies and Analytics, and Amol Sinha from the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union discuss legalization of recreational marijuana at the Cannabis Law Summit in midtown Manhattan on Thursday, May 18. Photo Credit: Rajvi Desai

By legalizing recreational use of marijuana, according to the provisions of Krueger’s bill, the revenue earned from marijuana-related businesses can be funneled back into the communities that bore the impact of criminalization.

There are other financial benefits to the state, such as tax benefits. Legalizing marijuana could yield up to $1.3 billion annually at the state and city levels, according to a report released by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer’s office. Calling those projections elevated, Krueger warned of setting too high of a tax on marijuana businesses, which could incentivize buyers to flock to a cheaper black market. She stressed the importance of setting a drug policy in New York that is a product of what did and didn’t work in other states that legalized recreational marijuana.

The Garden State next door

On April 12, Cuomo had said, “It’s no longer a question of legal or not legal. It’s legal in Massachusetts, it may be legal in New Jersey, which means, for all intents and purposes, it’s going to be here anyway, right?”

Most recently, New Jersey Attorney General Gurbir Grewal sent a letter to municipal prosecutors asking them to adjourn all legal processes regarding marijuana-related offenses in court until Sept. 4, NJ Advance Media reported. Grewal wanted to develop “appropriate guidance” for prosecutors, a move that the publication lauded as a “big step toward legalization.”

In addition, the governor for the Garden State, Philip D. Murphy, ran on a marijuana legalization platform last year. Since his election, he has stressed his commitment to get a legalization bill passed before the end of the year, according to reports. He also signed an executive order to relax regulations on medical marijuana, which New Jersey allowed in 2010.

For recreational marijuana, however, there is no one bill that has garnered widespread support from New Jersey lawmakers, according to Amol Sinha, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey. There are several legalization bills floating in the State Senate that address some aspects of drug policy, like State Sen. Nicholas Scutari’s, but none that include all the provisions that Sinha believes advocates want to see in a piece of legislation.

These include automatic expungence of the records of drug offenders, reinvestment of marijuana-related taxes back into the community, allowance for home growers to grow and consume their weed products, and a fair industry that removes arbitrary caps and restrictions on those trying to obtain marijuana licenses, he said.

“There may be a bit of an arms race to figure out who gets the first bite at the marijuana apple, so to speak, and the moment right now is really palpable in New Jersey,” Sinha said, at the “Overview of Adult-Use Legislation in New York and New Jersey” summit in May.

Krueger, too, plans to ride what she called the “blue wave” in the November midterm elections, when she expects a Democratic takeover of the New York state Legislature. With a democratic governor and legislature, she believes her legalization bill will come to a vote in 2019.

De Blasio taking baby steps

Although de Blasio ordered the NYPD task force, the results of which brought about a change in the city’s marijuana policy, he has been slow in getting behind the legalization rhetoric abounding among other politicians, focusing more on the decriminalization aspect of the issue.

On April 17, de Blasio expressed apprehension at the prospect, saying he is “just not there” on marijuana legalization during a news conference. Worrying that legalization of recreational marijuana could become a corporate reality, de Blasio had said, “And then, as we’ve seen with tobacco, there’d be a consistent effort to try and hook young people, and potentially spread something much more widely than it is even now. That worries me.”

On May 18 at an unrelated news conference, he said that his approach toward legalization has undergone a “natural evolution.

“Once upon a time, you know, the coin of the realm was, maximize arrests, maximize stops, all that. We’ve obviously changed those policies,” he said, crediting a decline in arrests to his neighborhood policing program. “I bluntly had hoped we would get more done. We haven’t gotten enough done. We have to do something more.”

While first lady Chirlane McCray has come out in support of regulated recreational use of marijuana, de Blasio has stated that he would like to further study states that have undergone legalization, expressing in May his desire to convene an interagency task force to study the effects of marijuana legalization in the city. Issues such as policing, “facility siting, public health, education, small business engagement, and economic fairness” will be explored, a City Hall spokesman had said in May.

The nitty-gritty of legalizing marijuana

Legalization has to go beyond a “free the weed” mentality; it has to be about more than just advancing marijuana culture, according to Christopher Alexander, policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance.

The focus of legalization, as iterated by Alexander at “Overview of Adult-Use Legislation in New York and New Jersey” in May, should focus on the continued criminalization of low-income communities. Prior drug convictions affect an individual’s chance of future employment, a spot in public housing units and educational opportunities, he said. It is also one of the major reasons why immigrants are deported, how families get torn apart by child welfare services, and why former convicts get trapped in the parole system, he added.

A study by the American College of Pediatricians, however, also shows that marijuana is addicting and can have adverse effects on the adolescent brain. Legalization could lead to increased consumption among youth and a decreased perception of harm, according to another study conducted by Thomas Petti, professor at the Robert Wood Johnson School of Medicine at Rutgers University. According to his findings, educational resources relating to the dangers of marijuana consumption must accompany any legalization efforts.

Krueger acknowledged the potential for harm with legalization, including the effect on youth and the danger of driving while intoxicated during the panel. She addressed the former by delineating a series of education programs included in her bill that would highlight the dangers of pot smoking, so as to prevent young people under the age of 21 from indulging in marijuana consumption, an idea backed up by the state Department of Health. As for the latter, she dismissed the idea saying that not enough people drive in New York City for it to be a real concern.

Other politicians have also come out in support of legalization, including Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, Public Advocate Letitia James, democratic candidate for governor Cynthia Nixon, and others.

Krueger’s bill, if passed, would mostly work like tobacco and alcohol restrictions in the city. Indoor smoking wouldn’t be permitted, except for residential buildings that allow it, she said. She has proposed on-site consumption sites that would work like social clubs, she added. In order to better accommodate individual community concerns, the bill has a provision that will allow municipalities to ban businesses dealing with recreational marijuana if the community calls for it, much like “dry” towns.

“We know from science that cannabis is less dangerous to your health than alcohol. And we’re not running around ruining people’s lives and locking them up for alcohol,” Krueger said. “So I just don’t know why we do it for cannabis.”