New York—Advocates, community organizations, and Council Members held a press conference and rally challenging Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD’s newly-announced marijuana enforcement policy, urging the Mayor to end racially biased marijuana arrests completely. The Mayor and NYPD Commissioner announced the policy shift yesterday in the culmination of their 30-day review period to assess marijuana enforcement in NYC.
Due to exclusions in the Mayor’s new policy, advocates raised concerns that racial disparities in marijuana arrests could continue—and perhaps increase. They stood strongly opposed to marijuana continuing to be used as a pretext for unnecessary NYPD interactions with community members.
Advocates emphasized that there is no public safety justification for arresting anyone for marijuana, especially given the extreme racial disparities in arrests that the 30-day review period was intended to address. Further, advocates demanded that the City’s policy shift remove any carve-outs (such as allowing NYPD to arrest people on parole or probation for marijuana possession or smoking) and pushed back on policies allowing marijuana to still be used as a pretext for any stop, harassment, or ID check of community members.
Under the new NYPD policy, marijuana can still be used as a tool for law enforcement to criminalize the most vulnerable New Yorkers: young people, non-citizen immigrants, people who are homeless, and communities of color.
“The impact of routine surveillance, stops, and arrests by police on young people is incontrovertibly damaging to their ability to continue living full lives, and maintaining their respect and dignity. Marijuana is often the excuse used to initiate unnecessary and life altering interactions between the police and young people. The Mayor’s new marijuana policy will fall far short of decriminalizing our neighborhoods and keeping young people out of a system that is designed to trap them in cages. Marijuana will still be a pretext for stops in our communities and a criminal summons will still entrap Black and Latinx youth in the criminal legal system,” said Darian Agostini, Make The Road New York.
“The carve outs essentially create a situation where officers still have broad discretion—which we know doesn’t work and is a big factor driving the racial disparities now. We need clear-cut policy saying no arrests, no justification for putting people into the criminal system—period,” said Kassandra Frederique, New York State Director, Drug Policy Alliance. “Summonses can be a backdoor into the criminal justice system, because an arrest warrant is issued for people who miss court. This issue should be a civil matter—not a criminal one.”
The carve-out allowing officers to still make an arrest if they are unable to verify a person’s ID or address is especially problematic. People who are homeless often don’t have steady access to identification documents and already face increased criminalization—which again calls into question the basis for such a carve-out. Organizations that work with young people spoke out that youth–who are one of the principle targets of current marijuana enforcement–might not possess ID consistently, and could therefore be subject to arrest and saddled with a criminal record.
That exclusion could also impact noncitizen immigrants, who sometimes struggle to obtain identification—and face extremely high consequences for a misdemeanor arrest, including deportation. Immigration activists juxtaposed this exclusion and criminalization with the Mayor’s touting of NYC as a sanctuary city and claims that he’s shielding immigrants from ICE within the federal crackdown.
“In the current political climate, immigrant New Yorkers who have any contact with the police, especially those who get arrested, risk triggering an ICE arrest. Under this NYPD policy, immigrants without sufficient identification will be arrested and placed in the crosshairs of ICE. Those who have ID and are issued a summons may still face disproportionate, harsh immigration consequences; even a marijuana violation can result in the deportation and permanent separation of an immigrant from their family and community. We are deeply disappointed that this policy continues to feed the deportation machine, undermining the city’s commitment to protecting immigrant communities,” said Marie Mark, Supervising Attorney, Immigrant Defense Project.
“NYC is not truly a sanctuary city if we criminalize people because of their immigration status, their lack of access to identification, or their lack of financial resources,” said Chris Alexander, policy coordinator, Drug Policy Alliance.
Public defenders took issue with the exemption for New Yorkers who have past involvement with the criminal justice system, who would be subject to arrest under the new policy just because of their history–even if they’re trying to move on with their lives.
“I have PTSD from being in prison for 30 years and the only thing that helps me with anxiety and stress is marijuana, which I’m not allowed to use because I am on parole. It’s not right that I cannot get the medicine I need, but other people can, without any problems. It’s discrimination,” said David Schermerhorn, a Community Leader with VOCAL-NY.
“Brooklyn Defender Services has represented thousands of New Yorkers, mostly people of color, who were arrested and prosecuted, evicted from NYCHA, subjected to child removal by ACS, denied professional licenses, or put into deportation proceedings based on personal marijuana use. It is time to end these harsh consequences and repair the harm. We support the Marijuana Taxation and Regulation Act, but until it becomes law, the City should end its punitive responses to marijuana use across agencies. In the meantime, we appreciate that District Attorney Eric Gonzalez will move to vacate past low-level marijuana convictions,” said Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services.
“The pronounced and longstanding racial disparity in this city’s arrests for marijuana-related offenses is an affront to the concept of equal treatment under the law for all. What most needs to change is discriminatory policing that unfairly targets our indigent communities of color; amending our marijuana policy would remove what has been a key driver of that. Steps must also be taken to alleviate the harm caused to anyone unfairly targeted in the past, such as those unduly burdened with a criminal record for conduct society is increasingly viewing as benign. New York County Defender Services joins the call for meaningful reform in this city’s law enforcement marijuana policy to address this inequity,” said Stan German, Executive Director of New York County Defender Services.
People arrested for a low-level marijuana offense can be saddled with a criminal conviction that can make it difficult to get and keep a job, maintain a professional license, obtain educational loans, secure housing, and keep custody of a child—precisely the collateral consequences that the Mayor and other City elected officials have recognized are extremely damaging and should not continue.
“Bill de Blasio told ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ at his mayoral campaign kickoff, but he’s created a plan with carve-outs to ensure that business continues as usual. Mr. Mayor, Black and brown people from poor communities should not be the city’s ticket to more money — stop feeding us into the criminal justice system and foster care through biased enforcement. We need a fair, just, and equitable NY,” said Joyce McMillan, Child Welfare Organizing Project.
Advocates stressed that the damaging effects of marijuana enforcement extend beyond arrests and pushed the Mayor to also instruct NYC agencies (NYCHA, Administration for Children’s Services, professional licensing boards, etc.) to address the harms caused by past arrests and reform their policies around marijuana.
“Mayor Bill de Blasio’s reforms fall short of what is truly needed to undue decades of zealous and racially biased marijuana enforcement. New Yorkers of color will still be marginalized by these proposed ‘carves outs,’ and our non-citizen clients further threatened by the identification requirement. The proposal also does not address the enormous culture shift that must take place at dozen of agencies to eliminate collateral consequences that often include eviction from NYCHA, lost children to foster care, denial of professional licenses and others nightmarish outcomes. Until full legalization comes to New York, decriminalization efforts must not be reform in name only,” said Anthony Posada, Supervising Attorney of the Community Justice Unit at The Legal Aid Society.
“If the mayor wanted to create a plan to make racial disparities in marijuana enforcement worse, he’s accomplished it with this. By allowing the NYPD to create a plan that feeds off of and widens disparities in the criminal justice system, Mayor de Blasio has failed to show leadership. The attempt to move some arrests to summonses also does nothing to address disparities. The de Blasio administration refuses to fulfill its commitment to publicly report the demographic data on each particular type of summons, hiding the racial disparities in the summons system. Therefore, all this plan will do is push the racial disparities to the summons system and then hide them from the public. The NYPD must stop its discriminatory targeting of certain New Yorkers for marijuana enforcement – that’s the way to end the racial disparities.” said Monifa Bandele, a spokesperson for Communities United for Police Reform and Senior Vice President at MomsRising.
“New Yorkers, and especially young people, should not face criminal charges for using marijuana, period,” said Laurie Parise, Executive Director of Youth Represent. “To carve people out based on past justice system involvement, which we know from all the data and reporting available is racially biased in the first place, undermines the entire goal of reducing racial disparity in marijuana arrests.”
City Council Members who held hearings on marijuana enforcement earlier this year and have steadily pressed the NYPD and City Hall to reform marijuana enforcement also spoke out against the exclusions in the new policy and the need to truly end marijuana arrests for all New Yorkers:
“The Mayor’s new marijuana enforcement policy is a marginal improvement, but a real missed opportunity to fundamentally change how the City polices marijuana possession and smoking. The legalization train in New York has left the station. The Mayor should get on it,” said Council Member Rory I. Lancman.
“I join the Drug Policy Alliance, my City Council Colleagues, advocacy groups, and community members in calling for the end of racist marijuana enforcement in New York,” said Council Member Antonio Reynoso. “We can no longer ignore the toll that unjust policing practices and enforcement standards are having on our communities of color. The Mayor and the NYPD need to stop tweaking inherently bad policies and fully halt the pursuit of criminal action against misdemeanor marijuana offenses; it is time to pressure our State legislature to legalize marijuana and begin a robust discussion of the details regarding its regulation.”
“Regrettably, this marijuana enforcement policy remix reflects the City still has yet to truly acknowledge the historic and fundamental racial bias that has disproportionately burdened of communities of color,” said Black, Latino and Asian Caucus co-chair Council Member I. Daneek Miller. “Ten thousand fewer arrests per year will only result in greater numbers of summonses for these New Yorkers, including the many who have already passed through the criminal justice system and will likely be ensnared again under the NYPD’s new guidelines. The Administration should go back to the drawing board and work more deliberately with stakeholders representing the men and women afflicted by the unequal policing of marijuana to develop a sensible policy that satisfies the need for public safety in a changing landscape but doesn’t add to their hardship.”
“Marijuana should be fully legalized. Over decades, tens of thousands of our neighbors, disproportionately lower-income New Yorkers of color, have suffered the consequences of the over-policing of marijuana. As long as a criminal framework is in place, these same communities will continue to suffer. I stand ready to work with officials at the state and local level to realize a legal, regulated system for adult-use marijuana so that we can build a fairer justice system and invest in our communities. This is the solution New Yorkers deserve,” said New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer.
“Marijuana criminalization has forced countless black and brown communities into a broken criminal justice system that strives to bury them under a rug rather than address the crux of what plagues our communities, the prison industrial complex. The Mayor’s recent announcement reinforces the criminalization that has already ravaged our communities for decades and any Marijuana decriminalization that includes a carve-out only serves to perpetuate the very crimes against our communities that we seek to address,” said Jorge Vasquez, Associate Counsel at LatinoJustice PRLDEF.