Pot busts during a pandemic? Prohibition is the real danger to public safety

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The NYPD is investigating an alleged police brutality incident on May 2, 2020 on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. (Photo via Twitter/@JBlascoNYC)


Morale is down. 20% of the force is sick. Dozens of officers are dead. And yet—in the midst of the crisis—the NYPD is cracking down on marijuana use.

On Saturday morning, the NYPD took to Twitter to brag about busting a commuter for carrying a few bags of weed. The tweet—which has since gone viral—features a photo of the four plainclothes officers who took down what the NYPD cheekily referred to as a ‘non-essential’ worker.

A few hours later, the NYPD found themselves in hot water again. A video — which has also exploded across the Internet — shows an plainclothes officer beating and arresting a bystander after he was allegedly observed failing to comply with social distancing orders.

However, NYPD spokesperson Sergeant Mary Frances O’Donnell has since suggested the altercation only occured because the officer “observed a bag of alleged marijuana in plain view”.

One day. Two cases of weed-related overreach. All this, despite the fact that New York decriminalized marijuana possession last year.

Even before the crisis, the vast majority of New Yorkers—as well as most of the city’s public officials—supported an end to marijuana prohibition. Saturday’s incidents show that our current approach to cannabis, however well-intentioned, doesn’t go far enough. The half-measures clearly aren’t working. If for no other reason than to protect the health and safety of the city’s residents, it’s time the Legislature finally legalized adult-use cannabis. Besides—as we stare down the barrel of a ballooning budget hole—the extra revenue couldn’t hurt.

Even before the crisis, sending in the cops for a little pot wasn’t in anyone’s best interest. After all, marijuana prohibition isn’t simply an unpopular policy. It goes against the advice of policing and public health experts. Even the city’s top prosecutors have concluded that marijuana arrests “waste an enormous amount of criminal justice resources for no punitive, rehabilitative, deterrent or other public safety benefit.”

Which makes the NYPD’s apparent decision to double-down on cannabis charges perplexing, to say the least. Accelerating cannabis arrests during a public health crisis only works to show citizens and cops that their leaders are more concerned with publicity than the safety of the people they’ve sworn to protect.

COVID-19 means every policing encounter poses additional risks to the health and safety of everyone involved (as well as the public at large). Every cop that gets sick is one less person available to protect and serve the public. And forcing officers to take on these unnecessary risks doesn’t just make it harder for the police to do their job.

It also works to dampen the department’s currently-dwindling morale. The NYPD should be working to minimize unnecessary interactions, not using their limited resources to beat people up for pot.

Putting people in harm’s way to enforce an illogical policy is ill-advised, at best. Doubly so when it’s done in a prejudicial, disproportionate manner. But bragging about it during a resource-draining public health crisis? Well, it makes the city’s leadership appear downright irresponsible.

And unfortunately, the consequences of this misguided directive extend way past angry Internet comments. Incidents like Saturdays’ only serve to erode public trust in the NYPD and other city institutions. Losing a political mandate is bad no matter what the circumstance. But during a pandemic? In a city increasingly disillusioned with their leaders’ responses to the crisis?

That kind of unforced error is the last thing NYC can afford right now.

While we don’t know all the details of the weekend’s weed arrests, it’s obvious the status quo doesn’t do a good job of addressing the problems it was ostensibly meant to solve. And as dozens of studies have demonstrated, legalization results in better public health and safety outcomes than prohibition.

By working to eliminate expensive, unproductive and discriminatory cannabis-related arrests, legalization can help restore public trust in the NYPD and other important institutions. It can generate desperately-needed revenue and help free up resources for more efficacious public health interventions; things like curbing underage use, common-sense, scientifically-sound drug education, allowing access to safer products, etc.

Our leader’s continued insistence on reefer madness only serves to further endanger the health and safety of all city residents. The time has come for New York to legalize it once and for all.

Natalie Papillion is a writer, researcher and the Executive Director of The Equity Organization — a New York-based nonprofit focused on the economic and criminal justice-related implications of drug policy reform.

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