Under New York State law, possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana in a public place is a Class B misdemeanor punishable by 3 months in jail. Public opinion in New York, though, is increasingly leaning toward legalizing possession, as well as the sale of marijuana for recreational use.
The trend appears inevitable, but if we don’t want the time in transition to be utterly chaotic, jurisdictions should come to a common understanding on how to enforce the existing laws while the debate about changing them takes place.
New York’s legalization of medical marijuana in 2014 went off without a hitch. A recent Quinnipiac poll found New Yorkers support legalization by a margin of nearly two to one. And many politicians in New York are riding along with the tide toward acceptance, arguing for full legalization soon, and decriminalization now. There is another compelling reason to act quickly on the state law while also exercising discretion on current enforcement. An analysis of crime statistics shows a tremendous racial disparity in the prosecution and sentencing for minor marijuana charges while usage rates in the overall population show no difference. On Long Island, the rate of arrests of minorities for possession of marijuana is quadruple that of whites. The cars of minority drivers are more often stopped and searched by police than those of white people. Since their cars are more often searched, illegal drugs are more often found. In New York City, the rates are similarly skewed, even though they are generated more by searches of people on foot.
The State Legislature wraps up business in Albany next month, so it’s unlikely there will be a change this year despite the growing pressure. And it’s better governance policy that the issue gets debated during the campaigns for statewide office, as well as State Senate and Assembly, that will be decided in November.
Last week, the district attorneys of Manhattan and Brooklyn announced that they would no longer prosecute possession and smoking violations. Monday, Mayor Bill de Blasio instructed police to stop making arrests for smoking marijuana in public, telling them to instead issue summonses.
But the other three boroughs have not yet said they will follow Manhattan and Brooklyn on prosecutions. And the police commissioners of Nassau and Suffolk counties say they plan to keep arresting low-level marijuana offenders as long as the law remains unchanged.
Such uneven enforcement creates the potential for a person traveling across the metropolitan area to repeatedly cross in and out of areas where possessing a couple of joints is alternately criminal and acceptable. That makes a mockery of our laws and law enforcement.
The illegal sale of marijuana has to be prosecuted. So does driving under the influence of the drug, which should be treated the same as alcohol or other drugs. But arresting and prosecuting people for possession, an act which is expected to be legal soon, would serve little purpose even if we could enforce the laws without discriminatory results.