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This is not Colorado, and the recreational smoking of marijuana is still not legal in New York. However, while not condoning the casual smoking of marijuana, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson has stated that he will no longer prosecute folk caught with 20 grams or less of the drug.
Last Friday, a crowd of activists, lawyers, politicians, residents and advocates climbed the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall to ask Police Commissioner Bill Bratton and Mayor Bill de Blasio to stop arresting folks found with minimal amounts of marijuana.
The Amsterdam News obtained a confidential memo sent to the NYPD last month just as Thompson is set to meet with Bratton to discuss his proposal this week.
The memo says that the initiative is to ensure “individuals, and especially young people of color, do not become unfairly burdened and stigmatized by involvement in the criminal justice system for engaging in nonviolent conduct that poses no threat of harm to persons or property.”
The memo states, “When a defendant has neither a criminal record nor an open arrest warrant, it makes no sense for the criminal justice system, including a district attorney’s office, to devote its scarce resources to lengthy case processing. We are pouring money and effort into an endeavor that produces no public safety benefit to the community.”
The memorandum went on to state that if it is determined that “the defendant has either no criminal record or a very minimal criminal record, there will be a presumption that such case will be immediately dismissed in the interest of justice.”
If the person who is caught, however, has a “history of selling drugs to children, or dangerous driving under the influence or marijuana,” then all bets are off. Absent of such aggravated factors though, “the case will be resolved with an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal or a non-criminal disposition.”
While Bratton did not respond to an Amsterdam News request for comment, a number of elected officials are rallying around the call.
“This is common sense policy which is best for our community,” said Assemblyman Karim Camara, chair of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus.“I have a bill up in Albany, and until we change the law, we need common sense policy from the commissioner of the NYPD.”
Camara said that his bill, which passed in the Assembly, both addressed the unequal application of the stops and arrests in Black and Brown neighborhoods and ensured that having marijuana in the public view would be considered a violation that would come with a fine, not arrest and jail. The state Senate shot it down.
Camara said, “So we have DA Ken Thompson taking up the cause here in Brooklyn. We will get it done.”
Assemblyman Walter Mosley added, “DA Ken Thompson made a promise to Brooklynites that he would not continue the practice of his predecessor and prosecute particular young Black and Brown men and women for low-level marijuana possession offenses. We believe that Ken Thompson is the right person to adjudicate these offenses and not the police force, not the commissioner. He is going to do his job with fairness, with blinders on.”
The day before the press conference, de Blasio said that he is pleased that NYPD officers are using more discretion when dealing with individuals possessing small amounts of marijuana. He added, “I haven’t seen the formal document. I haven’t seen the specifics. Again, I think the broad strokes here have been that many, many people—I’ve felt this, Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo has felt this, even former Commissioner [Ray] Kelly felt this, I know Commissioner Bratton feels this—have wanted to see a different approach.
Commissioner Bratton talks appropriately about officers having a lot more discretion in how they approach offenses involving marijuana. So I think there’s a lot of movement in the same direction here. But as to the specifics, I haven’t see the DA’s specific policy. I can’t respond to it yet.”
“Ken Thompson should be commended for his forward-looking policy to focus the law enforcement resources of his office on more serious crime,” said Rep. Hakeem Jeffries. “The time has long past to stop criminalizing young men of color for possession of small amounts of marijuana, when affluent college students regularly evade prosecution. We should have one standard for everyone, and that is what this change in policy will help bring about.”
Making their voices to “end the war on drugs” were advocates from community health and safety organizations, VOCAL-NY, Drug Policy Alliance, Dr. Eric Pryor of the Center for NuLeadership, a host of lawyers and others. They proclaimed that within the last 15 years, over 600,000 people—mostly Black and Brown—have been arrested for marijuana possession in New York City, even though it has been documented that white men use marijuana at higher rates.
VOCAL-NY member Barbara Smith said that while “Bratton’s not feeling it … we are here to say cut out the madness. The mass arrests are not fair to the taxpayers, to the community. It’s overcrowded upstate. Now these young people have a record, and they hold that against them when they get a job. They are destroying the youth and their progress in life.”
Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams said that he commends Thompson “for taking this bold step to stop criminalizing our young people. The policy of arresting young people for carrying a small amount of pot clogged our legal system and diverted resources from pursuing violent crime, which the DA should and, thankfully, is now doing.”
“[Bronx] District Attorney [Robert Johnson] has supported legislation that would reduce the penalties for possession of marijuana,” said Melvin Hernandez, from the Bronx County district attorney’s office. “Currently, when our office encounters defendants who are charged solely with misdemeanor marijuana possession, for the most part, desk appearance tickets are issued.”
Council Member Jumaane D. Williams enthusiastically applauded Thompson’s proposal, saying, “As a strong advocate for marijuana legalization, I am happy to see efforts being made to fix a broken system that has left hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers behind bars. Arresting people for low-level possession has long been a way that young men of more color have become stigmatized for engaging in nonviolent conduct that poses no threat or harm to our community.”
“Speaking only of Queens, the vast majority of low-level marijuana possession cases in Queens County result in adjournment in contemplation of dismal,” said Kevin R. Ryan, director of communications for Queens District Attorney Richard Brown.
Gabriel Sayegh, New York state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said: “This is a powerful step toward restoring fairness and equity in the criminal justice system. There’s a growing national movement to end the failed war on drugs and enact sensible drug policies. Brooklyn is leading the way, and now it’s time for the rest of the city and for Albany to act.”
“Small portions of marijuana should not be a criminal offense when for personal use and not distribution,” said the Rev. Reginald Williams, president and CEO of Addicts Rehabilitation Center (ARC). “However, this provides family and the criminal justice system the opportunity for individualized interventions with licensed professional drug treatment programs such as ARC, which specializes in treatment, crisis intervention and in/outpatient drug rehabilitation.”
Speaker after speaker reiterated how young people who are stopped by cops are often told to turn out their pockets or book bags, and if there is any marijuana in public view, what should be a summons now becomes a misdemeanor. Thompson’s office states that this is illegal in itself, and there have been laws on the books saying that carrying less than 25 grams is not an arrestable offense.
Advocates cited the fact that arrests have dropped recently, but with the New York state Division of Criminal Justice Services saying that there have been just under 30,000 people arrested in the city for marijuana possession, it is not enough—especially because a 1977 state law states that possession of a small amount of marijuana cannot lead to an arrest and jail if it is not in public view.
Alfredo Carrasquillo said that he has been arrested for suspected marijuana possession more than a few times. A member of VOCAL-NY, he praised the plan. “DA Thompson’s decision to end prosecutions for many low-level marijuana offenses is another important step in rebuilding community trust in New York’s criminal justice system after years of racially biased stop-and-frisk policing. We hope that other DAs will follow Brooklyn’s lead and adopt similar policies that will ensure fairness, save money and allow prosecutorial resources to be used where they matter most.”
And we hope the NYPD is listening. In the Thompson memo obtained by the Amsterdam News, the office concluded that pursing a criminal case against someone charged with having a small amount of weed as the top count “does not advance public safety with fairness and justice, and indeed might well sabotage that goal.”