Queens District Attorney Richard A. Brown wants to wait until the NYPD finishes its review of marijuana enforcement practices before changing his office’s direction toward such cases. Numerous Queens lawmakers, however, say there’s no need to wait any longer.
In a May 22 letter to local elected officials, Brown said that “the wisest course for all of us at this point is to allow” the 30-day working group that Police Commissioner James O’Neill appointed to fully examine the policies and procedures related to possession and public smoking of marijuana. Brown expressed confidence “that the resulting report will help shape our determination of what is best for our city.”
A number of elected representatives issued a joint statement on May 23 calling on the borough’s top prosecutor to no longer pursue low-level marijuana offenses across Queens. Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance and Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez had already announced their respective offices would no longer prosecute such cases.
“For years, other jurisdictions have responded to measures undertaken by the city to lessen the criminalization of pot, but Queens County continues to lag behind,” Councilman I. Daneek Miller said. “Now that the NYPD is being made to reconcile with its pattern of unequal policing in black and brown communities, District Attorney Brown must act accordingly and stop prosecuting petty marijuana offenses, including summonses that disproportionately burden people of color.”
O’Neill formed the working group on May 15, the same day that Mayor Bill de Blasio announced the NYPD would review and ultimately reform its marijuana enforcement policies due to reported racial disparities across the city. The commissioner acknowledged that “there are differences in arrest rates, and they have persisted going back many years, long before this current administration.”
“We need an honest assessment about why they exist, and balance it in the context of the public safety needs of all communities,” O’Neill said in a May 15 statement.
Brown said in his May 22 letter that his office conducted an internal review of marijuana-related arrests made between May 1, 2017, and April 30 of this year. The study found that 75 percent of the 2,094 defendants arrested for smoking pot in public wound up receiving desk appearance tickets and weren’t held in custody for arraignment. Arrest warrants were issued only to the 21 percent of the desk appearance ticket recipients who failed to show up for their scheduled court appearance.
Moreover, Brown said, 2,507 public marijuana smoking cases were disposed during the period, and 69 percent of them ended in adjournment in contemplation of dismissal. Just 2.4 percent of cases resulted in a conviction of a crime rather than a violation.
“Thus, over 97 percent of the public smoking cases did not result in a criminal conviction,” Brown wrote. He went on to note that “we will treat all who are arrested for violating our criminal laws relating to the possession and public smoking of marijuana fairly and respectfully” until the working group’s report is concluded.
Despite those figures, Assemblywoman Alicia Hyndman noted that “the rate of convictions for low-level marijuana charges among black and brown communities are alarmingly high in southeast Queens.” Councilman Donovan Richards added that the arrest for marijuana possession itself winds up sticking to an individual’s record “for the rest of their life,” hindering their ability to find work.
“Our marijuana enforcement and prosecution policies are a tremendous waste of taxpayer resources and divert law enforcement attention away from serious crime,” said Councilman Rory Lancman, who chairs the Council’s Justice System Committee. “New York City should be on the forefront of fairer marijuana policies.”