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Pot is having a moment in New York

Joints are part of last month's 420 Day

Joints are part of last month's 420 Day celebration on 'Hippie Hill' at Golden Gate Park in San Francisco. Credit: Getty Images / Justin Sullivan

Witness the mad dash to the finish line as New York politicians race to show how hip they are regarding marijuana.

It’s part of a national trend. Some states are moving to full legalization, though recreational use is illegal under federal law. Opinion surveys such as those by the Pew Research Center find that a majority of Americans favor legalization.

So maybe it’s not surprising that Sen. Chuck Schumer came out in favor of decriminalization in April. Gubernatorial candidate Cynthia Nixon is boosting bud, maybe her most fervent issue. Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo once considered the funny stuff to be a “gateway drug,” but he has pushed for medical marijuana and is touting a study on legalization in the region.

In New York City, marijuana policy changes are underway. The Brooklyn and Manhattan district attorneys are in the midst of decreasing low-level marijuana prosecutions.

And though Mayor Bill de Blasio has told reporters he’s “not there yet” on legalization, the esteemed progressive won’t be fully left behind. At a speech at the Center for American Progress’ 2018 Ideas Conference in Washington, he vowed that the NYPD would “overhaul and reform” its marijuana enforcement policies in 30 days. His voice breathy with anticipation, he said of this and other progressive issues that, “I feel like we’re seeing something we never saw before.”

That might be a little bit of hot air, but it’s more marijuana motion than the city has seen since 2014, when de Blasio moved toward summonses and said that low-level marijuana arrests would largely be made when people smoked in public. Arrests dropped, but racial disparities continued among those arrested, despite mostly equivalent use and similar levels of 311 complaints, as reported recently by The New York Times and the New York City Council, among others.

Why did marijuana return to policy-makers’ plates again? Add the disparity in arrests to leftist energy coming out of the 2016 election, a gubernatorial primary and national marijuana acceptance — to the point when NYPD Commissioner James O’Neill said in a statement last week, “The NYPD has no interest in arresting New Yorkers for marijuana offenses when those arrests have no impact on public safety.”

All this might get you wondering whether in a few years, we’ll look back and see this period as the tail end of an era. At that future date, it may seem crazy that police arrested people for personal use of what will then be regarded as a normal social lubricant. If that’s true, then every person arrested for minor pot use now is among the last casualties of a war in which the armistice has essentially been signed.

Who are those people? There were 1,713 arrests in Nassau County, 1,597 arrests in Suffolk County, and 17,880 arrests in New York City last year for which the top charge was a low-level marijuana misdemeanor, according to the state Division of Criminal Justice Services. Often, that means puffing on a joint outside. Police on Long Island and in New York City frequently issue desk appearance tickets, a form of arrest, for the misdemeanor, but traditional arrests are still made.

New York City data show marijuana arrests and violations clustered around black and Hispanic neighborhoods. Those are areas that de Blasio did not visit Tuesday to announce his forthcoming plan.

While the political winds shift, those neighborhoods keep waiting.

Mark Chiusano is a member of Newsday’s editorial board.


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