By Naeisha Rose
City Councilmen Rory Lancman and Donovan Richards issued a letter last week to NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill addressing what they considered “overzealous” marijuana enforcement of vaping THC oil or possession of the substance, according to the elected officials.
In the letter, the elected officials found it to be problematic that the NYPD was arresting people allegedly in possession of vape pens with THC oil — which is an extract from the marijuana plant — rather than issuing criminal summonses.
This comes months after the city announced that low-level marijuana use would result in citations in June, according to City Hall. This also comes after that new policy was officially implemented Sept. 1, according to the elected officials.
“On Sept. 1, 2018, the NYPD implemented new enforcement policies for low-level marijuana use, instructing officers to issue a criminal summons instead of making an arrest in most cases of public smoking,” Lancman and Richards wrote in a joint statement released Nov. 28. “Nonetheless, we are advised that the NYPD is still arresting people for possession of THC oil or possession of vape pens with alleged THC oil inside. If anything, this form of use seems like a safer and less intrusive way of consuming marijuana than traditional smoking.”
In addition to the arrests, the charges against those allegedly using or possessing THC oil is being treated as a Class A misdemeanor, which is a similar statute for people charged with low-level heroin possession, rather than the lesser B-misdemeanor, which is a criminal possession of marijuana, according to the elected officials.
“Any criminal charge for a Class A misdemeanor [could] be punishable for up to one year in jail, three years probation or a $1,000 fine,” said Timothy Rountree, the Attorney-in-Charge at the Legal Aid Society’s Criminal Defense Practice in Queens.
While that may be the worst case scenario for people that already have a criminal history, if this is an individual’s first arrest there is the possibility to mitigate the charge, according to Rountree.
Julia Burke, another lawyer at Legal Aid in Queens, has come across THC oil arrests in the past and said she has even had cases that were prosecuted against her clients without labs being used to test the substance.
Burke said some of her clients were arrested for alleged possession even though the substance was odorless and could be CBD [oil], which is an extract from industrial hemp and doesn’t produce the high that THC oil derived from marijuana does, according to healt
Three other lawyers at Legal Aid in Queens have come across similar arrests, and one was even in court Dec. 4, according to members of the Criminal Defense Practice. Since the summer the firm has estimated that they’ve seen 12 to 20 cases a month.
“If the NYPD is serious about preventing the arrests of those using marijuana on our streets, they cannot replace those numbers with New Yorkers using a healthier, less intrusive method such as vaping THC oil,” said Richards, chair of the Committee on Public Safety. “Charging these people with a charge similar to heroin possession is dishonest and disheartening. While we work to limit the criminalization of drug use as the NYPD has done with opioids, we must not take two steps back by criminalizing a form of THC that is legal under the state’s limited medical marijuana program.”
The NYPD said it will review the letter.
Reach reporter Naeisha Rose by e-mail at nrose