New York City Is Finally Softening Its Stance on Pot

After decades of arresting people for having weed on the streets of New York, the NYPD is ready to change its tune. But don't get TOO excited—we're a long way from legal marijuana.

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Nov 11 2014, 4:12pm

New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton holds up a bag of oregano to demonstrate what 25 grams of marijuana looks like at a news conference with New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (L). Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images

New York City has been the US capital of marijuana possession arrests for years now, but the most powerful men in town announced on Monday that change is coming—and soon.

Starting next Wednesday, November 19, possession of 25 grams or less of pot—even in public view—will no longer get you cuffed and brought downtown by the cops. Instead, police will begin issuing criminal court summons, or desk appearance tickets, requiring guilty parties show up in front of a judge at a future date. The bad news for pot lovers is that smoking the stuff in public will still be sufficient to earn you a night or two in jail. And since many New Yorkers—especially young men of color—fail to show up when issued desk appearance tickets, this isn't exactly a game-changer when it comes to the war on drugs in America's largest city.

Still, Mayor Bill De Blasio, who campaigned on reining in NYPD excesses, framed the issue as a simple matter of social justice.

"When an individual is arrested," he told reporters at a press conference at One Police Plaza, "even for the smallest possession of marijuana, it hurts their chances to get a good job; it hurts their chances to get housing; it hurts their chances to qualify for a student loan. It can literally follow them for the rest of their lives and saddle young people with challenges that, for many, are very difficult to overcome."

The new policy is certainly his boldest step yet on policing reform, and it would appear to be in direct conflict with NYPD Commissioner William J. Bratton's signature "broken windows" theory. The idea there is that going after minor offenses like pot possession and turnstile jumping can help nab the really nasty guys, like rapists and murderers. But Bratton seems on board with the change—in fact, he even held up 25-gram bag of oregano at the press conference Monday to demonstrate how much weed you can carry around without being arrested.

"All I can think of right now is pizza, because I usually like oregano on my pizza," he told reporters.

After he addressed a conference on criminal justice issues at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in Manhattan that afternoon, I asked the commissioner about the apparent contradiction between a laissez-faire attitude on pot and arresting people for dancing on the subway and other "quality-of-life" crimes.

"Broken windows ultimately is about discretion," Bratton told me. "An officer, one of the tools they have, is... whether to give a verbal warning, admonition, summons, or an arrest. This way, they have the ability to issue a summons, which is a less harmful part of the process rather than making an arrest... in keeping with quality-of-life policing."

So broken windows is still the name of the game, even if Bratton is ready for some tweaking at the margins after a summer characterized by graphic videos of police doing extraordinarily terrible things to minorities. Private possession of weed has actually been decriminalized at the state level since the 1970s, but city cops have tended to go rogue and force people to take the stuff out of their pockets into open view, making it a crime. When I asked the commissioner if marijuana was effectively decriminalized in New York City now, he was having none of it.

"Not at all," Bratton replied. "If you're smoking a joint, you're going to be arrested. If you're trying to sell joints, you're going to be arrested. This pertains to a portion of the problem."

When asked what kind of impact this new policy might have on arrests, the commissioner was noncommittal: "Our anticipation is that it will result in the need for fewer arrests—that's a hopeful expectation."

Even if Bratton seems intent to brush it off like no big thing, this represents the single most significant change so far in the De Blasio era after the establishment of universal pre-K for the city's children. Stop-and-frisks are way down this year—Bratton gushed to the New Yorker's Jeffrey Toobin, who interviewed him at the criminal justice conference, that his cops have only conducted 45,000 of the controversial searches so far in 2014, on pace for the fewest in some time. But that trend actually began under his predecessor, Ray Kelly, as Bratton is more than willing to admit.

"A lot of this is Giuliani-era criminalization of people, with a fetish for incarceration," Eugene O'Donnell, a former Brooklyn cop and prosecutor, told me of pot arrests. "They took a tremendous number of routine arrests and made people stay in jail for 24 hours. The major transformation in the city at this point is that it's real-estate central, it's safe as hell, and serious crime is not a concern. This is a much easier sell now than it would've been in the 90s when you had the fear factor. The New York Post is endorsing it today, which should tell you a lot about where we're at."

Despite the seemingly historic shift, policing reform advocates were already warning on Monday that this is a wolf in sheep's clothing, or at least nothing to get too excited about.

"This policy shift from Mayor de Blasio is a positive step forward," said Priscilla Gonzalez, a spokeswoman for Communities United for Police Reform (CPR). "But real reform requires an end to unlawful searches, since they are a main driver of unlawful marijuana arrests. If marijuana ticketing targets black and brown New Yorkers, it will only perpetuate racial profiling and discriminatory policing."

Bob Gangi of the Police Reform Organizing Project agreed.

"Black and brown New York men are liable not to show up to court, meaning their summons dates could lead to court-issued warrants," he said Monday. "So next time they're stopped, cops have to arrest them. We're not convinced that this policy, even if the NYPD is set to implement it, will change the main problem."

If the new pot policy just shifts the disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on minorities from the arrest side to summonses, it's not clear who benefits except a mayor desperate to shore up his support among the people who elected him. Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson—who helped augur the change by announcing this summer that he wouldn't prosecute most low-level pot cases—has already expressed concern that, since summonses are not subject to prosecutorial review, this new system might be even less accountable than the status quo. People with outstanding warrants will still be arrested for having small amounts of pot, as will those who can't produce ID, which means mostly immigrants, the elderly, and minorities. But we shouldn't downplay what amounts to a complete reversal on a decades-long war on weed in NYC.

"This is supposed to be a violation, so the fact that arrests are being made in the first place has been the issue," O'Donnell, the former cop and prosecutor, told me. "We're on the road to sanity, finally. It's long overdue. The political establishment wasn't exactly a profile in courage on this."

Update: According to a Tuesday afternoon Daily News report, cops were briefed on the new weed policy today, and are apparently still going to arrest people "who they believe just extinguished a joint," as well as "anyone who appears to be stoned or refuses to sign a DAT (desk appearance ticket)." Something to bear in mind, people.

John Surico contributed reporting.

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