NYC: Prosecution for Low-Level Marijuana Possession Out?

In another sign of new progressive tilt in New York City politics, the New York Post reported July 8 that Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson has announced that he will stop prosecuting low-level marijuana cases. Thompson’s press release said his new policy is to, “Prevent offenders — who are disproportionately young men of color — from being saddled with a criminal record for a minor, non-violent offense.” But Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said his cops will keep arresting Brooklyn’s weed tokers anyway. “In order to be effective, our police officers must enforce the laws of the State of New York uniformly throughout all five boroughs of the City,” Bratton said in his own statement. “Accordingly, the Kings County policy change will not result in any changes in the policies and procedures of the NYPD.”

Under Thompson’s new policy, Brooklyn prosecutors will now dismiss “Class B” misdemeanor marijuana arrests if the arrested toker doesn’t have a history of serious crimes. This includes people busted with up to two ounces. Kids aged 16 and 17 arrested with marijuana will be diverted to a youth court and a treatment program — and police will be directed to destroy records of their fingerprints after they complete the program.

Thompson’s predecessor, Charles Hynes, processed more than 8,500 cases last year in which a class-B possession was the top charge. Over two-thirds of those cases were dismissed by judges when the defendant accepted an ACD, or “adjournment in contemplation of dismissal,” Thompson said in his press release. “Given that these cases are ultimately — and predictably — dismissed, the burdens that they pose on the system and the individual are difficult to justify,” the statement said. “We are pouring money into an endeavor that produces no public safety benefit.”

But the depth of Bratton’s intransigence was revealed in a June 10 report on Gothamist website, citing official statistics that under the first four months of Mayor Bill de Blasio‘s administration, the NYPD has arrested 80 people each day for low-level marijuana possession — slightly higher than the average of 78 arrests per day in 2013, and nearly nine times what they were when Bill Bratton served his first term as police commissioner in 1994. Unsurprisingly, 86 percent of those arrested for pot possession from January through April 2014 were Blacks and Latinos, 29 percent of them teenagers — and 79 percent were between the ages of 16 and 34. Loren Siegel of New York’s Marijuana Arrest Research Project called upon the supposedly liberal de Blasio to intervene in the situation: “This is a practice and a policy that’s very easy to fix. All it requires is for the mayor to tell the police commissioner to stop it.”

Even more embarrassing for Bratton was a May 20 piece on Gothamist indicating that the commissioner may not even know the law he makes such a big deal about enforcing! It quoted his recent testimony before the City Council: “The idea of decriminalizing marijuana, I think, is a major mistake and something I will never support.” This prompted City Council Speaker Melissa Mark-Viverito to leave in a huff. Later, she gave an impromptu press conference in the hallway, telling reporters: “Let me be clear: at the state level, since the 1970s, for small quantities, it’s been decriminalized. My hope is that this is the next major policy change under the NYPD so we can curtail the number of African American and Latino youth that are being criminalized.”

New York decriminalized marijuana in 1976.

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