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NYC decides pot fines are just the ticket

Mayor and police chief announce major NYC marijuana decriminalization; reform advocates say it's not enough

The New York Police Department will stop arresting people for possession of small amounts of marijuana and instead issue them civil citations, city officials said Monday, citing both a severe racial disparity in the law’s implementation and the burden of arrests on the criminal justice system as reasons for the change. 

Citizens who are stopped by police with small amounts of the drug will receive civil summonses, like parking tickets, instead of permanent arrest records that could limit their opportunities later in life. It’s a model that is increasingly being used in cities across the United States.

“Now there will be fewer unnecessary, low-level marijuana arrests,” said Mayor Bill De Blasio, who ran on a campaign last year emphasizing police reform. “That energy goes into fighting more serious crime.”

A first marijuana ticket, for possession up to 25 grams — just three grams less than an ounce — will cost $100. A second ticket would cost $250.

NYPD Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said he hoped narcotics officers will start going after big transactions or more dangerous drugs — not small amounts of pot.

“I want those narcotics buy-and-busts focusing on significant sales of marijuana, or the emerging problem drug we’re having, heroin,” Bratton told reporters Monday, referring to sting operations on dealers using undercover officers posing as drug buyers. 

The new rules will allow even some "public display" of small amounts of unlit marijuana, which was formerly a misdemeanor, city hall announced. Selling it and smoking it in public will remain criminal offenses.

Drug policy reform advocates hailed the move as a good step, but said much more needs to happen before New York City’s drug laws can be considered fair. They said Monday’s announcement represents a national trend, coming just after two Oregon, Alaska and Washington D.C.  decided during midterm elections to legalize recreational cannabis, joining Washington state and Colorado.

“If we want a solution here, then we should remove criminal penalties. No arrest, but also no tickets, no fines,” said Gabriel Sayegh, a managing director at the Drug Policy Alliance, a policy reform group.  

Sayegh argued that not only are summonses an annoying hassle to resolve, but that the majority of people getting them are still likely to be black and Hispanic males who live in the city’s poorer neighborhoods. Blacks and Latinos represent 85 percent of marijuana arrests in the city. He believes the root of this problem is faulty, racially biased policing. 

In a statement announcing the new measure, de Blasio's office quoted local politicians hailing the new rules.

"In minority communities like the one I represent, our young people are disproportionately affected by criminal charges for small infractions," said Maritza Davila, a member of the New York State Assembly who represents Brooklyn’s East Williamsburg section, where many Hispanics live. 

"With this decriminalization, we give our children an opportunity to change their lives for the positive without the shadow of a criminal record," she said. 

Although De Blasio argued a ticket is preferable to arrest, Bratton stressed that this wasn’t a “get out of jail free card.”

“One of the ways to avoid a summons is don’t do it,” Bratton said. “Don’t smoke it. Don’t carry it. Don’t use it. It’s still against the law. The public has a responsibility to obey the law. Our responsibility is to enforce it. Obey the law and then you won’t have to deal with us at all.”

Even though New York state decriminalized marijuana possession in 1977, the circumstances of many arrests allowed New York City police to book people on more serious charges, especially when conducting “stop-and-frisk” searches. Civil rights groups, city politicians and federal authorities have all denounced stop-and-frisk as being racially biased, targeting black and Hispanic men far more than whites.

Although former Mayor Michael Bloomberg hailed the practice as a way to take illegal guns off the street, studies have found the most common criminal consequence of a frisk is arrest for marijuana possession.

“These laws have been used as a means of targeting and harassing people of color,” said Rachelle Yeung, a legislative analyst at the Marijuana Policy Project, a pro-legalization lobbying organization.

“Even with the shift from arrests to ticketing, many New Yorkers may still be abused by the police through ‘broken windows’ tactics and harassment related to so-called quality-of-life infractions,” said Priscilla Gonzalez, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform. “There is a long way to go before we see an improved and non-discriminatory NYPD.”

'Broken windows' policing means arresting citizens for small crimes, such as public intoxication, in order to ferret out people who have serious open warrants. It's a tactic Bratton, on his first stint as commissioner, and former Mayor Rudolph Giuliani employed in the early 1990s. Officials credit it with dramatically lowering the city's crime rate over the last two decades. 

Yeung of MPP said that despite the reforms, New Yorkers who purchase marijuana have to face needless dangers associated with an illegal transaction, unlike in states where it is fully legal and regulated. Legalization, she said, is the best way to remove that risk.

“In places like Washington state and Colorado, and soon in Oregon and Alaska, people are buying it [marijuana] from safe businesses,” Yeung said. “But in New York City, people are still going to criminal markets where some people might have weapons, or are trying to sell harder and more dangerous drugs. All over the United States, people are using marijuana. That is just a fact.”

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