The NYPD announced yesterday that officers now have the option of ticketing for possession of less than 25 grams of ‘dry marijuana’ instead of arresting, charging, and making criminals of low-level weed offenders. The new policy allows police to issue a summons to show up in court and $100 fine to those in possession of less than 25 grams of flower, which represents a ‘violation of penal law’ and does not carry a criminal record.
While this isn’t full-on decriminalization, it’s a step in the right direction since New York’s ‘Stop and Frisk’ policy has haunted and harassed citizens for years. In New York, officers can stop whomever they deem ‘suspicious’ on the street and search them with no reason aside from the officer’s discretion—and often prejudice. Not surprisingly, statistics show that being a minority is often cause enough; blacks are 4.52 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana misdemeanors than whites.
Before this new change, if any amount of marijuana is found in the frisk, the carrier would be arrested on the spot, handcuffed, brought in, fingerprinted, photographed, put in the system, and booked for hours with real criminals until they were charged with a misdemeanor and released. Unsurprisingly, this led to New York being second in the United States in marijuana arrests per capita —nearly 93,000 people per year are charged with misdemeanor pot offences that remain on their permanent records indefinitely.
Newly elected Democratic Mayor Bill de Blasio introduced the new change in policy as a step toward amending if not ending the racist, shameful history of Stop and Frisk marijuana arrests. However, many are skeptical that any good will come of this because of a major potential flaw in the policy: police now have the option of issuing a summons and fine instead of an arrest, but ultimately the choice is up to them.
The NYPD specified that officers may issue a summons instead of arrest “unless conditions warrant processing at a Department facility.” Vague, unspecific language like this has many worrying about officers’ abuse of discretion, and in a city where a fucked-up policy like Stop and Frisk is still in full effect, I don’t blame them.
According to Marijuana.com, in August 2012, Chicago passed a decriminalization policy with language similar to this new policy in New York. Officers were to ‘use their discretion’ whether to ticket or arrest people for minor marijuana offences. After 14 months, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that arrests dropped 21% in the first seven months of 2013 compared to those in 2012. However, 79% (9,269 people) were still arrested and charged with misdemeanors, causing the Sun-Times to declare the program a failure.
Let’s hope the NYPD will error on the side of decency and see this new policy as a way to redeem decades of racial profiling under an indecent practice. Ultimately, only time will tell.