Advocates challenge De Blasio's Marijuana Enforcement Plan
New York, NY — Advocates, community organizations, and Council Members held a press conference and rally on June 20, 2018 at the steps of City Hall, challenging Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD’s newly-announced marijuana enforcement policy, urging the Mayor to end racially biased marijuana arrests completely. The Mayor and NYPD Commissioner announced the policy shift yesterday in the culmination of their 30-day review period to assess marijuana enforcement in NYC.

Due to exclusions in the Mayor’s new policy, advocates raised concerns that racial disparities in marijuana arrests could continue—and perhaps increase. They stood strongly opposed to marijuana continuing to be used as a pretext for unnecessary NYPD interactions with community members.

Advocates emphasized that there is no public safety justification for arresting anyone for marijuana, especially given the extreme racial disparities in arrests that the 30-day review period was intended to address. Further, advocates demanded that the City’s policy shift remove any carve-outs (such as allowing NYPD to arrest people on parole or probation for marijuana possession or smoking) and pushed back on policies allowing marijuana to still be used as a pretext for any stop, harassment, or ID check of community members.

Under the new NYPD policy, marijuana remains a tool for law enforcement to criminalize the most vulnerable New Yorkers: young people, non-citizen immigrants, people who are homeless, criminal justice-involved people, and communities of color, activists say summonses are “Backdoor to Incarceration,” and can result in warrants, arrests, fines, and/or credit liens.

“The impact of routine surveillance, stops, and arrests by police on young people is incontrovertibly damaging to their ability to continue living full lives, and maintaining their respect and dignity. Marijuana is often the excuse used to initiate unnecessary and life altering interactions between the police and young people. The Mayor’s new marijuana policy will fall far short of decriminalizing our neighborhoods and keeping young people out of a system that is designed to trap them in cages. Marijuana will still be a pretext for stops in our communities and a criminal summons will still entrap Black and Latinx youth in the criminal legal system,” said Darian Agostini, Make The Road New York.

“The carve outs essentially create a situation where officers still have broad discretion—which we know doesn’t work and is a big factor driving the racial disparities now. We need clear-cut policy saying no arrests, no justification for putting people into the criminal system—period,” said Kassandra Frederique, New York State Director, Drug Policy Alliance. “Summonses can be a backdoor into the criminal justice system, because an arrest warrant is issued for people who miss court. This issue should be a civil matter—not a criminal one.”

The carve-out allowing officers to still make an arrest if they are unable to verify a person’s ID or address is especially problematic. People who are homeless often don’t have steady access to identification documents and already face increased criminalization—which again calls into question the basis for such a carve-out. Organizations that work with young people spoke out that youth--who are one of the principle targets of current marijuana enforcement--might not possess ID consistently, and could therefore be subject to arrest and saddled with a criminal record.

That exclusion could also impact noncitizen immigrants, who sometimes struggle to obtain identification—and face extremely high consequences for a misdemeanor arrest, including deportation. Immigration activists juxtaposed this exclusion and criminalization with the Mayor’s touting of NYC as a sanctuary city and claims that he’s shielding immigrants from ICE within the federal crackdown.

“NYC is not truly a sanctuary city if we criminalize people because of their immigration status, their lack of access to identification, or their lack of financial resources,” said Chris Alexander, policy coordinator, Drug Policy Alliance.

Public defenders took issue with the exemption for New Yorkers who have past involvement with the criminal justice system, who would be subject to arrest under the new policy just because of their history--even if they’re trying to move on with their lives.

“I have PTSD from being in prison for 30 years and the only thing that helps me with anxiety and stress is marijuana, which I’m not allowed to use because I am on parole. It’s not right that I cannot get the medicine I need, but other people can, without any problems. It’s discrimination,” said David Schermerhorn, a Community Leader with VOCAL-NY.

People arrested for a low-level marijuana offense can be saddled with a criminal conviction that can make it difficult to get and keep a job, maintain a professional license, obtain educational loans, secure housing, and keep custody of a child—precisely the collateral consequences that the Mayor and other City elected officials have recognized are extremely damaging and should not continue.

Advocates stressed that the damaging effects of marijuana enforcement extend beyond arrests and pushed the Mayor to also instruct NYC agencies (NYCHA, Administration for Children's Services, professional licensing boards, etc.) to address the harms caused by past arrests and reform their policies around marijuana.

“Mayor Bill de Blasio’s reforms fall short of what is truly needed to undue decades of zealous and racially biased marijuana enforcement. New Yorkers of color will still be marginalized by these proposed ‘carves outs,’ and our non-citizen clients further threatened by the identification requirement. The proposal also does not address the enormous culture shift that must take place at dozen of agencies to eliminate collateral consequences that often include eviction from NYCHA, lost children to foster care, denial of professional licenses and others nightmarish outcomes. Until full legalization comes to New York, decriminalization efforts must not be reform in name only,” said Anthony Posada, Supervising Attorney of the Community Justice Unit at The Legal Aid Society.​

City Council Members who held hearings on marijuana enforcement earlier this year and have steadily pressed the NYPD and City Hall to reform marijuana enforcement also spoke out against the exclusions in the new policy and the need to truly end marijuana arrests for all New Yorkers:

“The Mayor’s new marijuana enforcement policy is a marginal improvement, but a real missed opportunity to fundamentally change how the City polices marijuana possession and smoking. The legalization train in New York has left the station. The Mayor should get on it," said Council Member Rory I. Lancman.

“I join the Drug Policy Alliance, my City Council Colleagues, advocacy groups, and community members in calling for the end of racist marijuana enforcement in New York,” said Council Member Antonio Reynoso. “We can no longer ignore the toll that unjust policing practices and enforcement standards are having on our communities of color. The Mayor and the NYPD need to stop tweaking inherently bad policies and fully halt the pursuit of criminal action against misdemeanor marijuana offenses; it is time to pressure our State legislature to legalize marijuana and begin a robust discussion of the details regarding its regulation.”

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