New York City Council Members Consider Banning Drug Tests For People on Parole

NYC seems intent on decriminalization, even as statewide legalization stalls in Albany.
New York City Council Members Consider Banning Drug Tests For People on Parole

As part of some its members’ mission to bring racial justice measures to the end of marijuana prohibition, the New York City Council may pass a law on Monday that would make illegal the hundreds of drug tests performed on residents who are on parole or probation.

“We all know that there’s no public safety value in violating people over low level marijuana offenses,” said Donovan Richards, a council member who chairs the public safety committee and proposed the bill. “Especially today when the state has already legalized medical marijuana and is talking about legalizing recreational use.”

Richards likened the parole/probation drug test as “one trap door that trips people up,” and said a negative marijuana test could get in the way of individuals working to get their lives back on track after being interrupted by incarceration. The New York Daily News published figures stating that 20,000 people were on probation in 2018, and among those 600 had to go through marijuana testing.

“We’re trying to build stable communities,” Richards said.

Council members have been among New York’s leaders in considering ways to counteract the racial equities of the War on Drugs throughout the process of legalizing cannabis.

That regulation of weed may come to New York on a statewide level if Governor Mario Cuomo continues to work on his re-election campaign pledges to regulate the drug. Though initially part of the governor’s first 100 day goals for his term, Cuomo has recently allowed that the state may need to wait longer to see its first legal marijuana system, dropping allowances for a marijuana program from the upcoming state budget plan.

But even as the legalization process encounters challenges in Albany, NYC City Council members have pressed ahead in exploring ways to evolve the system when it comes to cannabis. Many have raised the issue of racial equity programs that could involve prioritizing marijuana business licenses for individuals with prior cannabis arrests or convictions.

In February, District Attorney John Flynn began the process of dismissing small-time marijuana possession cases. “Nothing about [marijuana prosecution] made our city safer,” Flynn testified at a NYC City Council committee hearing on February 27. “In fact, these prosecutions eroded public trust in law enforcement and frustrated our core mission.” That day, Flynn said his office is working towards “automatic sealing of previous marijuana convictions”, a feat akin to the mass expungements that have already been undertaken by San Francisco’s district attorney.

Lawmakers around the state have been keen to see a legalization that makes allowances for the communities most harshly effected by the War on Drugs. Black state representatives have said they will remove their support of Cuomo’s legalization plan if it does not explicitly address their concerns for Black and Latino communities that have been negatively and disproportionately impacted by marijuana policing.

These efforts are important given the mounting evidence that racially biased policing is not corrected solely by making marijuana legal. In both Colorado and Washington, studies showed that Black people continued to be arrested and face charges for drug offenses at higher rates than white people after marijuana was regulated in their states.

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