Manhattan Decriminalizes Cannabis

By:Magalie Noebes 

September 14 , 2018 


Updated 4:20 PST

The moment has finally come. After months of debate, The Manhattan District Attorney’s new policy to not prosecute low-level marijuana charges has officially gone into effect. And it’s only the first step toward broader decriminalization NYC-wide.


On July 7th, 2014, the Compassionate Care Act was signed into law, making NY the 23rd state to legalize medical cannabis. Though certified medical patients have had the free-and-clear to obtain their medicine, others seeking the general “high” of cannabis were not given the same shake. Despite the fact that Mayor de Blasio said he would cut down on arrests after taking office in 2014.


At that point, the Brooklyn DA’s Office was the first borough to end prosecution of many low-level marijuana cases (they’ve also recently announced a plan to expand that policy.) Other than Brooklyn, which is the largest populated borough in NYC, no other boroughs followed suit, and the arrests only began to rise.


Police data obtained by WNYC shows that 16,925 people were arrested last year for low-level marijuana possession and smoking in public. Sure, you could argue that these smokers were breaking the law, but seeing as the state is profiting off the taxes provided by marijuana, perceptions and punishments needed to change, specifically for low-level possession and consumption.


“Our research has found virtually no public safety rationale for the ongoing arrest and prosecution of marijuana smoking and no moral justification for the intolerable racial disparities that underlie enforcement,” said DA Cy Vance Jr. in a statement.


Public defenders like Vance, and drug reform advocates continuously expressed their disappointment in the Mayor and the rising number of low-level drug arrests they saw in their city. Well - Manhattan has made the first step toward erasing stigma towards cannabis, and insuring those who simply want to wind down, aren’t sitting in jail with hefty fines attached.


The new policy not to pursue low-level smoking and possession cases is expected to reduce Manhattan marijuana prosecutions by 96 percent - from about 5,000 cases per year, to less than 200. There are exceptions to this new rule, though: cases against sellers and defendants who are under investigation for violent crimes.


In accordance with this new policy, consideration for those already sitting in jail for their low-level possessions has been taken. The Manhattan DA’s office said it is planning to seal all past marijuana convictions in Fall 2018.


Unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like the other NYC neighborhoods are going to follow suit any time soon. Representatives from the Bronx and Staten Island DA state marijuana is still illegal, and therefore they will continue to enforce the law. As for Queens, their DA spokeswoman said they’ll continue to pursue “valid” possession and smoking cases. Though, it has been noted that the NYPD as a whole, generally supports easing back on marijuana cases:


Police Commissioner James O’Neill said: “The NYPD has no interest in arresting New Yorkers for marijuana offenses when those arrests have no impact on public safety.”


All in all, it is only a matter of time until New York legalizes. With the upcoming election in November, NYC is bound to see a shift. Candidates like Cynthia Nixon has vehemently expressed her platform for legalization, as well as New York’s rising progressive Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The future looks bright for New York and cannabis, and the first steps are to tare down the walls of stigma toward the plant. Manhattan’s DA taking the leap and decriminalizing, is only one step closer to the ultimate goal - legalization.



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