Bloomberg Says No More Jail Stays for Minor NYC Marijuana Busts
February 14, 2013
by Phillip Smith
In his final state of the city address Thursday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that people caught with small amounts of marijuana in the city will no longer be subjected to overnight stays in the city’s jails, but will merely be taken to the precinct for a desk appearance and then released.
The move is in response to increasingly loud criticism of the city’s extremely high marijuana arrest rates, which are taking place despite New York state having decriminalized pot possession more than three decades ago. The NYPD managed to get its pound of flesh from marijuana users by intimidating them into removing baggies from their pockets, then charging them with the misdemeanor of public possession of marijuana, not the infraction of simple possession, and then making them sit in holding cells for up to 24 hours.
During Bloomberg’s 10-year tenure as mayor, more than 400,000 people have been arrested on pot possession charges, nearly 350,000 of them young men of color. That number has begun to decline in recent months as police have modified their practices under pressure.
“We know that there’s more we can do to keep New Yorkers, particularly young men, from ending up with a criminal record,” Bloomberg said. “Commissioner Kelly and I support Governor Cuomo’s proposal to make possession of small amounts of marijuana a violation, rather than a misdemeanor, and we’ll work to help him pass it this year. But we won’t wait for that to happen,” he said.
“Right now, those arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana are often held in custody overnight. We’re changing that. Effective next month, anyone presenting an ID and clearing a warrant check will be released directly from the precinct with a desk appearance ticket to return to court. It’s consistent with the law, it’s the right thing to do, and it will allow us to target police resources where they’re needed most.”
Drug reform and civil rights activists said it was a step in the right direction, but a small one.
“Mayor Bloomberg stopped defending the indefensible and now recognizes that we cannot afford to criminalize youth of color for carrying small amounts of marijuana,” said Alredo Carrasquillo, a community organizer with VOCAL-NY. “But being ‘consistent with the law’ means more than just issuing desk appearance tickets instead of putting people in jail. Most people targeted for these arrests only produce marijuana in plain view after being illegally searched during stop, question and frisk encounters with police. Mayor Bloomberg’s support for marijuana reform is a step in the right direction but does not solve the fundamental problems with the NYPD’s policing strategies.”
“We agree with the mayor that there’s more we can do keep New Yorkers, especially young people of color, from ending up with a criminal record,” said Kyung Ji Rhee, the juvenile justice director for the Center for NuLeadership. “For instance, the mayor can direct Commissioner Kelly to immediately cease and desist NYPD’s broken ‘stop and frisk’ program. We must stop these mass arrests and criminalizing people for simply possessing small amounts of marijuana. And we can get the police out of our schools to end the ‘schools to prison’ pipeline.”
“This new policy is a step in the right direction — and it’s the direct result of the ongoing campaign led by community groups in New York to end these racially biased, unpopular, unjust and expensive arrests,” said Gabriel Sayegh, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “Marijuana possession is the number one arrest in New York City and with this new policy change, tens of thousands of people, mostly young men of color, will no longer be held in jail overnight on for possessing small amounts of marijuana. But the arrests themselves need to end — period. Now the legislature must act — immediately — to pass Gov. Cuomo’s marijuana decriminalization bill. Every reasonable New Yorker supports the measure. Reform is long, long overdue.”
Bloomberg Backs Plan to Limit Arrests for Marijuana
June 4, 2012
ALBANY — The New York Police Department, the mayor and the city’s top prosecutors on Monday endorsed a proposal to decriminalize the open possession of small amounts of marijuana, giving an unexpected lift to an effort by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to cut down on the number of people arrested as a result of police stops.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, whose Police Department made about 50,000 arrests last year for low-level marijuana possession, said the governor’s proposal “strikes the right balance” in part because it would still allow the police to arrest people who smoke marijuana in public.
The marijuana arrests are a byproduct of the Police Department’s increasingly controversial stop-and-frisk practice. Mr. Bloomberg and police officials say the practice has made the city safer, but, because most of those stopped are black or Hispanic, the practice has been criticized as racially biased by advocates for minority communities.
The support expressed by Mr. Bloomberg, prosecutors and police officials is likely to carry significant weight in the Republican-led State Senate, which is the key obstacle to passage of the bill in Albany during this year’s legislative session. Mr. Cuomo has amassed a strong track record of winning passage of legislation he embraces, and the speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, joined him at his news conference Monday, indicating that the Democrat-controlled Assembly would back the measure. The Republican Senate leadership has traditionally opposed legislation it views as soft on criminals.
Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, framed the issue as one of racial justice as well as common sense, saying that the police in New York City were wasting time, resources and good will making tens of thousands of unnecessary arrests. Possession of small amounts of marijuana is a crime only if the marijuana is in public view or if it is being smoked in public, but many of the marijuana possession arrests have been occurring when the police order someone stopped to empty his or her pockets, making the marijuana visible — a phenomenon the governor called an “aggravated complication” of the stop-and-frisk practice.
“It becomes a question of balance,” the governor said of the city’s police stops. “Part of the balance is the relationship with the community. I think the N.Y.P.D. and the mayor are making efforts to work with the community.”
The governor’s announcement was cheered by lawmakers from minority neighborhoods as well as by civil rights groups, who are increasingly looking to Albany and to Washington in an effort to rein in what they see as overly aggressive tactics on the part of the Bloomberg administration.
Black leaders also cited the governor’s proposal as a rare recognition of — and attempt to remedy — what they describe as a cultural and legal double standard: that young African-American men are being arrested in large numbers for an activity — using marijuana — that is prevalent, but with less frequent legal consequences, among whites of the same age.
“Some of our police officers are making race-based discretionary decisions on who they’re going to arrest for low-level marijuana possession,” said Leroy Gadsden, the president of a branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Jamaica, Queens, and the chairman of the criminal justice committee for the statewide N.A.A.C.P. “Therefore, of course, if you’re a young, black male, even a female, you’re going to feel that you’re being targeted when you notice that your white counterparts are not being arrested for the same thing.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton praised Mr. Cuomo’s proposal as “a step in the right direction” in curbing what he described as racial profiling by the Police Department. And Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, a Brooklyn Democrat who has pushed legislation to end low-level marijuana arrests, said, “It cannot be criminal behavior for one group of people and socially acceptable behavior for another group of people, where the dividing line is race.”
A spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg rejected the notion that the Police Department acted with racial bias in arresting people for marijuana possession.
Under Mr. Cuomo’s proposal, the state would downgrade the possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana in public view from a misdemeanor to a violation, with a maximum fine of $100 for first-time drug offenders. It is already a violation to possess that amount without putting it into public view.
In September, facing growing pressure over the marijuana arrests, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly issued a memorandum clarifying that the police were not to arrest people who take small amounts of marijuana out of their pockets after being stopped. A city spokesman said that low-level marijuana arrests had fallen by nearly a quarter since then.
Mr. Bloomberg, whose administration had previously defended low-level marijuana arrests as a means of deterring more serious crimes, said on Monday that Mr. Cuomo’s proposal was consistent with Mr. Kelly’s directive. Mr. Kelly made a rare trip to the Capitol to join Mr. Cuomo at the news conference as a way of demonstrating the city’s support for the governor’s proposal.
“This law will make certain that the confusion in this situation will be eliminated,” Mr. Kelly said, adding, “Quite frankly, it will make the application of this law much clearer.”
Mr. Cuomo said changing the law was a better approach in the long term, saying, “I think it puts the police in an awkward position to tell them, enforce some laws, don’t enforce other laws.”
“This is nice and clean: change the law, period,” the governor added.
The five district attorneys in New York City also endorsed the change in the law on Monday. The Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., said that half of the 6,200 people who were charged with low-level marijuana possession last year in Manhattan had never been arrested before.
“This simple and fair change will help us redirect significant resources to the most serious criminals and crime problems,” Mr. Vance said. “And, frankly, it’s the right thing to do.”
But one Republican, Senator Martin J. Golden of Brooklyn, expressed concerns. He said that the enthusiasm among some lawmakers and advocacy groups for Mr. Cuomo’s proposal was “all about stop-and-frisk,” and, citing several young people in his district who had died of prescription drug overdoses in recent months, questioned the message it would send to young people about drug use.
Noting the 25-gram threshold for Mr. Cuomo’s proposal, he said, “That’s a lot of pot, my friend.”