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Civil Libertarians Skeptical on NYC Marijuana Policy

New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton whimsically held up a baggie filled with oregano to show what 25 grams (about an ounce) of herb looks like in announcing the new policy to stop making arrests for those found in possession of that much cannabis in public view. The policy is expected to curb the tens of thousands of arrests for low-level marijuana possession the NYPD makes each year — busts that disproportionately affect Black and Latino residents despite the fact that whites use the herb no less.

Despite New York State’s 1976 decriminalization law, the Big Apple has remained the marijuana arrest capital of the world — and arrests have actually increased since the supposedly progressive Mayor Bill de Blasio took office this year. Pot in public view is what is critical — allowing police to make arrests for what would otherwise be just a ticketable offense. But even under NYC’s new marijuana policy, possession in public view can still get you a summons and a $100 fine, and those smoking in public will still be subject to arrest.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), writes in an opinion in the Daily News that while the de Blasio administration is on the right track by ending low-level cannabis arrests, “New Yorkers need to know if the NYPD is finally ending its marijuana crusade or if it is simply shifting its tactics to mitigate the harm. A trip to summons court is way better than a night in jail, but it carries its own consequences, including mandatory court fees, fines, costly legal services and court appearances that require time away from work and school. Worse yet, a missed court appearance or failure to pay a fine means an arrest warrant.”

Lieberman also told local radio 1010 WINS that there is a potential downside to the new policy. Summonses rather than arrests could make it “hard to document the racial impact of a policy if you don’t have the data… We know that marijuana smoking and possession is really as much a white offense as it is by people of color. When somebody gets a summons, we don’t know the race of the person who is summoned.” Lieberman is calling for state legislation that would require such stats for those receiving a summons as well. “It’s really important that we get full transparency about who is being subjected to summonses,” she said.

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