Greener pastures?

New York City lawmakers and the NYPD are making an effort to review polices governing low-level marijuana offenders, which they believe would lead to declining prosecution rates.

First, Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance and Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez announced that they would enact policy changes on marijuana prosecution. Now elected officials in Queens are calling on District Attorney Richard Brown to do the same in our borough.

U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks, state Sen. Leroy Comrie, state Assembly members Clyde Vanel and Alicia Hyndman, and City Council members Adrienne Adams, I. Daneek Miller, Francisco Moya, Rory Lancman and Donovan Richards signed a letter addressed to Brown contending “marijuana is not a threat to our public safety” and that the DA should follow in the steps of his fellow district attorneys.

The letter was released a week after Mayor Bill de Blasio announced there would be sweeping changes in low-level marijuana prosecutions following a series of troubling reports illustrating the huge racial disparities in those types of arrests. In their letter to Brown, the lawmakers cited police data from February 2018, which showed that of the 17,000 people arrested for low-level marijuana–related offenses in New York City last year, 14,530 were people of color. Among that population 48 percent were black and 38 percent were Hispanic or Latino.

Those inequities are most evident in neighborhoods within the 105th Precinct, which covers Queens Village, Cambria Heights, Laurelton, Rosedale and Springfield Gardens. Two years ago, 82 percent of the marijuana arrests in parts of southeast Queens involved black and Latino residents. The lawmakers said those neighborhoods “comprised of 9 percent of the city’s total in 2016, and last year’s amount was the highest of any command in the five boroughs: 2,199.”

It’s clear that there is prejudice when it comes to crime, specifically marijuana offenses. And having a more relaxed policy against low-level offenders would result in fewer arrests. But it’s not that simple. If those who smoke marijuana have the ability to do so without fear of repercussion, maybe they would try and push the limit.

Or they might choose to drive under the influence. Or perhaps they would try to cross busy intersections while high, which can delay reaction time. So while it may seem like a good way to reduce arrest rates, allowing marijuana users to burn on without fear of arrest or prosecution could prove to be a fatal mistake.

We need to think about all the negative consequences that can come from this and see how that stacks up against the good a relaxed marijuana policy could bring. There must be a middle ground and it’s up to our prosecutors and lawmakers to continue the fight to find one.