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Mayor, City Council intend to change policy on low-level marijuana offenses

City officials are re-evaluating their methods in prosecuting low level marijuana offenses.
Photo by Mel Evans/AP
By Naeisha Rose

Lawmakers across the city and Police Commissioner James O’Neill revealed their intentions last week to overhaul the way they approach low-level marijuana offenses, especially as it pertains to people of color.

“Studies show there is no correlation between low-level marijuana offenses and public safety,” said City Councilman Donovan Richards (D-Far Rockaway). “If the NYPD is going after gangs, I have no problem with that, but if 40 percent of [black] kids who are getting locked up and never had a record beforehand – what is that telling you? White kids smoke the same way – so we’ve got work to do to make sure that there is equity.”

Under the direction of Mayor Bill de Blasio, a spokesman for the NYPD said that the department will create a working group, which would review policies related to marijuana and come up with proposals for how they will proceed in handling low-level offenses in 30 days.

“The NYPD will review our practices to ensure enforcement is consistent with the values of fairness and trust at the root of Neighborhood Policing,” said O’Neill in a statement. “The NYPD has no interest in arresting New Yorkers for marijuana offenses when those arrests have no impact on public safety.”

The day before the May 15 City Hall meeting, City Councilman Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest), the chair of the Committee on the Justice System, called on the city’s district attorneys to refuse to prosecute low-level possession marijuana cases.

“Declining to prosecute more low-level marijuana cases will make our justice system fairer and help prevent unnecessary and expensive incarceration,” said Lancman.

Shortly after Lancman’s request, Cy Vance and Eric Gonzalez — the district attorneys for Manhattan and Brooklyn, respectively — announced that they will put forth policy changes with respect to marijuana prosecution.

“The dual mission of the Manhattan DA’s Office is a safer New York and a more equal justice system,” Vance said. “The ongoing arrest and criminal prosecution of predominantly black and brown New Yorkers for smoking marijuana serves neither of these goals.”

Richards wants Queens District Attorney Richard Brown to join the other DA’s in their revamped approach to low-level marijuana prosecution.

“I’m hoping the Queens DA will come around to using discretion,” Richards said. “If you are not a violent offender, there is no reason you should be behind bars for smoking marijuana… and I hope all the DAs are really going to come around on this.”

Brown’s office has taken some measures to relegate petty crimes, like marijuana offenses, by sponsoring its first-ever summons warrant forgiveness event in the borough on Oct. 21, 2017, and it will look at the NYPD’s upcoming proposals before taking any further action.

“It is our understanding that Mayor Bill de Blasio has directed the New York City Police Department to review its policy and practices,” said a spokesman for the Queens District Attorney’s office. “We will await the results of that review.”

The mayor did not give any details on how he would implement a new policy in tackling low-level marijuana offenses, but he wants there to be significant change in how justice is doled out.

“We must and we will end unnecessary arrests and end disparity in enforcement — it’s time for those to be a thing of the past in New York City and all over this country.”

Reach reporter Naeisha Rose by e-mail at nrose@cnglocal.com or by phone at (718) 260–4573.

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