New York police to relax policy on smoking pot in public

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

Most New Yorkers who are found smoking marijuana in public after September 1 will no longer be subject to arrest, the New York Police Department announced on Tuesday.

Offenders will instead be issued with a summons. There are some exceptions to the change in policy; marijuana users who are caught without identification, who already have a criminal warrant or documented history of violence, or whose smoking poses an immediate public safety risk could still be arrested.

“Today is a day where we take a step into the future,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said at a news conference Tuesday.

The announcement comes at the end of a 30-day period during which an NYPD task force worked with advocates and criminal justice experts to review its existing marijuana policy.

The NYPD has in the past been accused of arresting a disproportionate number of people of color for marijuana-related offenses.

Queens Council Member Donovan Richards, chair of the Council’s committee on public safety, expressed tentative optimism about the NYPD’s new policy. He said the policy change would begin to rectify “decades of targeted enforcement” that has denied jobs and college grants to many low-income New Yorkers.

“Studies show that all races smoke marijuana at the same rate on average. We still have a long way to go in addressing policing strategies,” Richards said.

Some steps have already been taken to relax the city’s approach to these kinds of crimes. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. has said he will no longer prosecute marijuana possession and smoking cases starting on August 1.

A report published by Vance’s office last month found that, despite efforts by law enforcement, black and Hispanic communities have continued to be arrested at far higher rates than predominantly white communities.

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said at the press conference Tuesday that his office was seeing “undeniable racial disparities” in marijuana-related arrests, and he has already begun declining to prosecute many of these. “We found that in good conscience we could no longer continue to prosecute these cases without any measurable public safety benefit,” Gonzalez said.

NYPD ‘no interest’ in pot arrests

At the news conference, Police Commissioner James O’Neill said the NYPD “does not target anyone based on race or any other demographic,” and cited a high number of complaints made to 911 and 311 about marijuana smoking.

He acknowledged that improvements could be made in interactions between police and marijuana users. “When it comes to marijuana we always need to ensure that our enforcement is consistent with the values of fairness that are at the root of our neighborhood policing philosophy,” O’Neill said.

“The bottom line is, and I’ve said this probably many times before, the NYPD has no interest in arresting people for marijuana offenses.”

The NYPD projects that its new policy will reduce marijuana arrests in the city by about 10,000 per year. The number of arrests for both possession and smoking have already decreased significantly since 2010 — there were 64% fewer arrests for possession last year and 66% fewer arrests for smoking in public.

De Blasio also announced that a Mayoral Task Force involving several city departments, including the NYPD, will study the necessary governing framework for New York City should the state government legalize marijuana use.