By Rory I. Lancman
The time has come for Queens to follow the lead of Manhattan and Brooklyn and stop prosecuting low-level marijuana possession and smoking cases, once and for all. It’s not fair, it’s not right, and it’s not worth it.
I called for prosecutors to decline these cases in May for three simple reasons: marijuana enforcement in New York City is discriminatory; running people through the criminal justice system for smoking or possessing small amounts of marijuana is completely disproportionate to any possible harm caused to the public; and our law enforcement resources can be better spent combating real crime.
Marijuana enforcement in the five boroughs is completely unfair. While studies consistently show that white and black people smoke marijuana at nearly the same rate, enforcement has overwhelmingly fallen on communities of color. In 2017, 86 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession in New York City were either Black or Latino. Nor can disproportionate enforcement be explained by 311 or 911 complaints from the community, where the NYPD’s own data show that many minority neighborhoods with few marijuana complaints had significant numbers of arrests and summonses.
Consider the 105th Precinct in southeast Queens, whose residents lodged only 253 marijuana complaint calls last year, but whose officers made or issued over 2,500 arrests or criminal summonses — more than twice as many as any other precinct in New York City. As a recent New York Times headline put it, “Surest Way to Face Marijuana Charges in New York: Be Black or Hispanic.”
The impact of an arrest or criminal summons, and the possibility of a lifetime criminal record, also has to be considered. A night spent in jail is no joke. Nor are the collateral consequences of a guilty plea or conviction: you can lose your job, your housing, even your access to a student loan. And if you’re not a citizen, it could get you deported. Even a simple criminal summons can lead to an open warrant if the individual misses even one court date, which can dramatically escalate even the most benign future encounters with law enforcement. Does smoking a joint really merit bringing down the heavy hammer of the criminal justice system on someone’s head?
Plus, these prosecution policies are a tremendous waste of taxpayer resources and divert law enforcement attention away from more serious crime. Crime is generally down in New York City, but that doesn’t mean serious violent crime has disappeared completely. From January to the end of July 2018, reported rapes were up 38 percent in Queens over the same period last year. Police and prosecutors have better things to do than making busts in black neighborhoods for low-level marijuana possession.
In response to building pressure to reform this broken system, Mayor Bill de Blasio established a new marijuana policing policy. But it is full of exceptions based on a person’s prior exposure to the criminal justice system that undermine its goal and will likely make marijuana enforcement even more discriminatory toward people of color.
Therefore, it is up to our prosecutors to take a stand and put an end to marijuana prosecutions. The police can’t police what prosecutors won’t prosecute.
Take a look at what is going on in Manhattan and Brooklyn. Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance announced that, as of this week, his office will decline to prosecute almost all marijuana cases. And Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez expanded his office’s non-prosecution policy to include marijuana smoking cases, after a pilot project produced a staggering 91 percent reduction in low-level marijuana prosecutions.
Queens should not have to wait any longer for a sensible and fair marijuana enforcement policy. I urge the Queens District Attorney’s Office to take bold action that will move our borough forward, and keep individuals out of the criminal justice system.
Rory I. Lancman
City Councilman (D-Hillcrest)