A glimmer of hope has emerged for police-reform and weed-decriminalization advocates in New York: Last week, anonymous sources told the New York Post that the NYPD is halting its buy-and-bust operations, which pinch low-level pot dealers through controlled purchases in an effort to make arrests up the drug-trade ladder. Adding to the intrigue are new reports from the New York Times and Daily News suggesting that City Hall is changing its policies and priorities when it comes to low-level marijuana arrests, which have become increasingly controversial in recent years.
The new buy-and-bust plan is apparently to concentrate on drugs that can actually kill you—like heroin and pills—and the new pot possession policy is reportedly to replace cuffs with tickets when nailing people for smoking or holding the stuff.
According to the Post, borough commanders are miffed at the buy-and-bust orders, which they believe also came down from Gracie Mansion. After all, de Blasio has come under fire lately for a citywide rise in marijuana arrests—86 percent of which target black and Latinos—despite running on a platform of reining in NYPD excesses.
"It's the kind of reform people like me wanted to see," Reverend Al Sharpton, a close ally of de Blasio, said about the buy-and-bust move. "This is a step in the right direction."
Finally, some good news from the birthplace of the notoriously regressive Rockefeller Drug Laws, which once represented a national model for mandatory sentencing in the war on Drugs. right?
Not so fast.
"There has been no finalized policy change in which the Department makes low-level marijuana arrests," an NYPD spokesperson told me on Friday. "The assertion that marijuana operations conducted by the Narcotics Division will be discontinued is not accurate."
So far, Mayor de Blasio has not spoken publicly about the decision to halt buy-and-bust operations—a move supposedly intended to silence his critics. Nor did he comment for the reports suggesting low-level marijuana arrests are on the way out. Wouldn't we expect his office to cheer these decisions? (The Mayor's office did not respond to VICE's request for comment, but a press conference on the topic is scheduled for today at 3 PM at One Police Plaza.)
As usual when it comes to reform, there's already plenty of opposition to changing the status quo. "If the current practice of making arrests for both possession and sale of marijuana is, in fact, abandoned," Sergeants Benevolent Association president Ed Mullins said to the Post, "then this is clearly the beginning of the breakdown of a civilized society."
Apocalypse aside, Gabriel Sayegh, the New York state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, argues that halting buy-and-bust on its own wouldn't do much to the arrest numbers. And that makes this situation even murkier.
"Even with buy-and-bust gone, it's not gonna have any impact on the number of marijuana possession arrests, because the buy-and-bust operations are for sales," he told me. "Of all the things you can do to address that problem, why do something that's not gonna address the problem at all?"
Sayegh says buy-and-bust operations benefit the NYPD by providing the cops with glowing PR on the rare occasion that arresting young black and Latino small-time dealers actually amounts to something larger. "If you go to look at who's incarcerated, it's never the kingpin," he said. "You have an ocean of big fish who never get caught, but it certainly serves the police when they catch the big fish.
"When that happens, you have the big press conference and the whole 'We're getting drugs off our streets,'" he continued. "Meanwhile, in essence, it's a black-market entrepreneur who just stepped in to fill that void. We've been doing this roundabout cycle for fifty years."
The NYPD's two-step on marijuana arrests speaks to the complicated relationship between Commissioner William J. Bratton, who is arguably the second-most powerful man in New York, and the mayor. The dynamic made headlines last week when the NYPD's Chief of Department Philip J. Banks resigned after being asked by Bratton to become Deputy Commissioner—a move that would have curbed his actual policing powers. Mayor de Blasio reportedly liked the idea of Banks, at the time the department's highest-ranking black official, assuming Bratton's position one day.
De Blasio and Bratton clearly disagree on weed too.
In July, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson announced he would no longer prosecute suspects for pot possession in his borough, which led the rest of the city with 20,413 marijuana arrests in 2010. In an immediate response, Bratton said the change in policy "really does not change the working circumstances of police officers who are in the field."
The Commissioner reiterated that notion this weekend when he "expressed concern" over the mayor's new plan to curb low-level arrests, telling the Times's Joseph Goldstein that "in order to give the public confidence in the fairness of the criminal justice system, these cases should be subject to prosecutorial review."
After calling Bratton "the finest police commissioner in the world," Mayor de Blasio—who, according to the Times, is set to gather the district attorneys to discuss a revision of the city's pot laws—told reporters this summer that "each moment where a police officer encounters a citizen is individual and officers must use their discretion. And there is absolute consistency in the district attorney's position." Then he went on to say low-level marijuana arrests had gone down under his administration (which we now know is not true).
The reality is that low-level marijuana arrests under de Blasio are piling up even faster than they were under Michael Bloomberg's administration. And of course Bratton is pissed about that changing, because the rise in arrests is directly linked to his notorious "broken windows" policing policies.
To drug-law-reform advocates, the important thing is that we're still having this conversation in New York City. If last Tuesday taught us anything, it's that most Americans are in love with Mary Jane: You had three more states legalize, the state of California on track to defelonize, and a shit-ton of municipalities decriminalize weed. Yet New York City is still arresting people like it's Prohibition.
"At this point, [not arresting people for weed] wouldn't be progressive; it'd be catching up with the mainstream," Sayegh said. "We're beginning to connect these dots nationally, but nobody in New York City has connected them yet. And we should be. New York City should be showing the country the exit strategy for the war on drugs."
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