NYPD Ends Policy of Making Arrests for Marijuana Use

NEW YORK (AP) -

Use of marijuana won’t lead to handcuffs in most cases once New York City’s revamped enforcement policy goes into effect on Sept. 1.

Mayor Bill de Blasio said Tuesday that police officers will shift to issuing criminal summonses for smoking the illegal substance starting Sept. 1 — a move he estimates will eliminate at least 10,000 arrests a year. The Democrat ordered the overhaul last month after a report showed most of those arrested are blacks and Hispanics.

“Nobody’s destiny should hinge on a minor non-violent offense,” said de Blasio.

Officers will still arrest suspected smokers if they are on parole or probation, have an open warrant, a violent criminal history or fail to show identification, Chief of Patrol Rodney Harrison said. The use of drugs while driving will also lead to arrest, he said.

Kassandra Frederique, the New York state director of Drug Policy Alliance, said the above-referenced exceptions signaled that authorities still feel “certain groups of people deserve to be criminalized” and that the city had “found a way to skirt the issue on racial disparities.”

Frederique called the summonses, which require a trip to court and payment of a $100 fine, a “backdoor into the criminal justice system,” because people who miss their court date could wind up with a warrant out for their arrest.

New York City set out to change its enforcement policy in May after The New York Times reported blacks in the city were eight times more likely to be arrested on low-level charges as whites.

Soon after, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said they would scale back marijuana-related prosecutions and police convened a group to study the policy with input from academics, community leaders and others.

“The NYPD is not in the business of making criminals out of people with no prior arrest history,” said Police Commissioner James O’Neill, denying officers were targeting anyone based on race. “We know that’s not productive.”

The use of the drug is illegal in New York state except for medical use on a strictly regulated basis, but the state’s top health official said Monday that an upcoming report on the issue will recommend legalization.

The legislature is scheduled to adjourn for the year this week, suggesting it won’t consider legalization until 2019 at the earliest — leaving local authorities and critics to spar over how smokers are treated under the existing law.

Kevin Sabet, the president of the anti-legalization organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana, encouraged police to run an awareness campaign to remind people that it remains illegal.

“We have spent a decade now to reverse the immense problem of tobacco,” said Sabet, a former Obama administration drug policy adviser. “It makes no sense to roll out the red carpet for marijuana.”