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OpinionColumnistsMark Chiusano

Pot is having a moment. Will it matter for the mostly black and Hispanic people who keep getting arrested?

Marijuana is having a moment in New York.

Marijuana is having a moment in New York. Sen Chuck Schumer, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Cynthia Nixon and DAs in Brooklyn and Manhattan are all taking action. And Mayor Bill de Blasio joined the party yesterday, too. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Drew Angerer

Witness the mad dash to the finish line as New York politicians race to show how hip they are regarding marijuana.

Some states around the country are moving to full legalization, though use of the drug is still illegal under federal law. Opinion surveys such as those by the Pew Research Center find that a majority of Americans favor legalization. A report from city comptroller Scott Stringer estimates there are some 1.5 million regular users in the state.

Sen. Chuck Schumer came out in favor of decriminalization in April. Gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon is boosting bud, maybe her most fervent issue. Gov. Andrew Cuomo once considered the funny stuff to be a “gateway drug,” but he has pushed for medical marijuana and is now touting a study on legalization in the region that he called for in January.

This week alone, the state Democratic Party is reportedly on the verge of endorsing legalization and Stringer published his report estimating $1.3 billion a year for New York from taxes on legal pot. You have the Brooklyn and Manhattan district attorneys amid marijuana prosecution policy shifts, with the City Council urging those shifts on. And you have multiple reports, including a New York Times one this week, detailing racial disparities in marijuana arrests, despite mostly equivalent use and similar levels of 311 complaints.

Oh, and not to be left behind, Mayor Bill de Blasio, esteemed leader of the progressives, gave a speech Tuesday at the Center for American Progress’ 2018 Ideas Conference in D.C., encouraging progressives to “be bold” and “be fast.”

“We are living in a time of miracles,” he said. His voice breathy with anticipation: “I feel like we’re seeing something we never saw before.” Hoopla aside, he promised on Tuesday that the NYPD would “overhaul and reform its policies related to marijuana enforcement in the next 30 days.” Later in the afternoon, the NYPD announced a working group to review marijuana enforcement, with limited details provided.

Clearly, even with the blustering, there is marijuana motion in New York. It has mostly been on the slow track since 2014, when de Blasio said that low-level marijuana arrests would largely be made when people were smoking in public.

Arrest numbers dropped significantly, but there are deep racial disparities in the marijuana arrests that occur. Criminal justice reform advocates including the Police Reform Organizing Project, the Drug Policy Alliance, and many others have continuously sounded the alarm about that fact, to little avail.

But add their efforts to leftist energy coming out of the 2016 election, a gubernatorial primary, national marijuana acceptance and more attention on district attorney races, and you can understand the new momentum.

In Brooklyn, for example, where the late District Attorney Ken Thompson reduced pot prosecutions, marijuana policy was a major issue in the campaign to replace him. DA Eric Gonzalez’s office has moved toward fewer minor marijuana prosecutions, too, aiming to mainly continue with those cases that cause a public nuisance — still a concern for advocates but better than the current system.

Another definitive sign of recent change on Tuesday came in a statement from Commissioner James O’Neill: “The NYPD has no interest in arresting New Yorkers for marijuana offenses when those arrests have no impact on public safety,” said O’Neill.

All this might get you wondering whether in a few years we’ll look back on this time and see it as the tail end of an era. At that future date, it may seem crazy that we arrested people for personal use of what will then be regarded as a normal social lubricant. If that’s true, then every person arrested for minor pot use now is among the last casualties of a war where the armistice has essentially been signed.

Who are those people? There were 17,880 arrests in NYC last year for which the most serious charge was low-level misdemeanor marijuana possession, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services. Often, that means puffing on a joint outside. Close to 90 percent of those arrests were of black or Hispanic individuals. City data shows marijuana arrests and violations clustered around black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Those are neighborhoods which de Blasio decided not to visit Tuesday to announce his plan to possibly ease their residents’ burdens 30 days in the future. He opted instead for DC’s Renaissance Hotel and a national audience, a speech bursting with vague campaign-style rhetoric about cops in communities and neighborhood policing. The neighborhoods themselves will just have to keep waiting.

Correction: An earlier version of this post included an error in the name of the state Division of Criminal Justice Services.  The post has been updated to correct the error.

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