For much of the past two decades, New York City had the dubious distinction of being the nation’s capital for low-level marijuana arrests.
Fueled by the data-driven zeal of former Commissioner Bill Bratton—the same “police reformer” Bill Bratton who suggested, in 2016, that marijuana was responsible for most of New York’s violent crime—NYPD officers dutifully collected petty weed busts like baseball cards.
In 2011 alone, NY cops arrested 51,000 people for marijuana offenses, most of them black or Latino people. The reason, police observers noted, was simple: Marijuana busts are easy, marijuana busts fill the stat sheet and marijuana busts fill the courts, filling in turn the public coffers with court costs and fines.
Forget the fact that policing pot smokers cost New York City $75 million in 2010, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. In a way, Bratton’s never-ending quest for arrests was a huge success, Soon, New York state arrested more people per capita for weed than almost anywhere else in the country, racking up more than three times as many busts as Texas.
In 2014, current New York City mayor Bill de Blasio put a partial stop to the pot police state by requiring police issue a ticket and a summons for a bust of 25 grams or less rather than making an arrest—but as the Village Voice reported last year, after a cut of nearly 50 percent, arrests started creeping back up again. At this point, it seems only legalization or decriminalization can stop this brutal cycle. For Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the former is a nonstarter—so he’s trying again with decriminalization.
On Wednesday, Cuomo “quietly” slid a decriminalization proposal into the 380-page “State of the State” message delivered to the state legislature, the Journal News reported.
While at the same time declaring that “the illegal sale of marijuana cannot and will not be tolerated,” Cuomo admitted that “recreational users of marijuana pose little to no threat to public safety.”
Cuomo included no specifics, and he—or someone else in the legislature—will have to follow up the call for decriminalization with a bill, such as the failed effort in 2012 that would have reduced possession of 25 grams or less to a traffic ticket-level violation.
Then, Cuomo was foiled by state lawmakers like Dean Skelos, the Republican Senate majority leader who declared such a law would allow people to walk around with “10 joints in each ear.” That observation earned scorn and abuse from he Daily Show, and Skelos was later convicted of corruption. Unrelated, of course.
In that time, New York state has also launched a limited medical-marijuana program. For now, marijuana in smoked form remains illegal, meaning New York—of all places—is one of the strictest places for weed in America where cannabis is also in some form allowed. Decriminalization will put an end to that confusing state of affairs and could be the best immediate solution to ending the state’s longstanding obsession with putting people in braces for weed.
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