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NYC pot policy: NYPD to issue summonses instead of arresting smokers

Several exceptions still leave smokers open to arrest, such as when there’s a “public safety risk.”

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner James

Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner James O'Neill offer details on the new city policy on marijuana consumption in public at a press conference Tuesday at the Thomas Jefferson Recreation Center in Manhattan. Photo Credit: Linda Rosier

Most New Yorkers caught smoking marijuana will face criminal summonses instead of being arrested, under a new city policy announced by the NYPD and Mayor Bill de Blasio Tuesday.

The policy change, meant to address the discrepancy between the number of arrests of people of color for marijuana use compared to the arrests of white people for the same offense, will be in effect by Sept. 1, de Blasio said. It has several exceptions, and police officers will “have discretion on how to exercise their enforcement powers,” the mayor’s office said in a news release.

For example, people could still be arrested for smoking pot if:

  • they are on parole or probation
  • they have existing criminal warrants
  • they don’t have identification
  • they have a recent documented history of violence
  • their smoking poses a public safety risk, such as while driving a car.

Smoking pot in a park around kids or while operating heavy machinery could also warrant arrest, at the discretion of the officer, Chief Rodney Harrison said at a news conference announcing the policy.

“There’s a host of different reasons” an officer can use discretion, he said.

There were nearly 52,000 complaints from the public about marijuana use in 2017, the city said. About 19,000 people were arrested for possession in 2017, compared to 53,000 in 2010.

A majority of New Yorkers consider smoking pot a “public nuisance that should be curtailed,” but they favor summonses over arrest if public safety and quality of life are not affected, according to the NYPD task force convened in May to review the department’s enforcement.

"When it comes to marijuana, we always need to ensure that our enforcement is consistent with the values of fairness that are at the root of our neighborhood policing philosophy," Commissioner James O'Neill said. "The bottom line is, and I've said this many times before: the NYPD has no interest in arresting people for marijuana offenses when those arrests have no direct impact on public safety."

“Every time there’s one less arrest it’s one life affected in a different way,” de Blasio said.

Some critics, however, said there shouldn’t be arrests for pot use at all.

“No one should be arrested for smoking marijuana, period,” Queens Councilman Rory Lancman said in a statement. “The mayor’s policy does not attempt to reduce criminal summonses at all, still allows arrests in circumstances that cannot be justified by public safety, will likely make marijuana policing even more discriminatory toward people of color, continues to expose noncitizens to deportation, and takes no steps to eliminate the collateral consequences which are in the city’s control.”

Under the new policy, the city also will issue quarterly reports on marijuana arrests and summonses by race and borough to track trends.

The plan comes a day after the state health department said a forthcoming report will support the legalization of marijuana. The mayor is “not there yet,” he said, but his office has created another task force that will make recommendations for regulating pot use in preparation for the possibility of state legalization. A report will be released in 2019, the office said.

With Alison Fox

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