Under Mayor Michael Bloomberg (I), arrests in New York City for marijuana have skyrocketed. And while Bloomberg made clear during a radio interview Friday that he does not support legalization of marijuana, he is ready to soften his stance. Bloomberg announced during his State of the City address Thursday that, in the absence of a state law decriminalizing public marijuana possession, he will use his executive power to eliminate jail custody for those arrested for low-level marijuana possession:
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.
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.
In his statement, Bloomberg also joins Cuomo in supporting a stronger state decriminalization measure. Technically, New York decriminalized marijuana possession in 1977 when it reduced the penalty for possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana to a civil fine. But the punishment does not protect public possession of marijuana, which, according to CNN, includes when an individual is asked to empty his or her pockets during one of the more than half a million stop-and-frisks conducted by the New York Police Department. Cuomo’s proposal would decriminalize possession of less than 15 grams of marijuana even in public view.
Bloomberg’s measure would mitigate the immediate harm to people arrested for marijuana — many of whom never face subsequent charges — but it would not change the fact that those found guilty of public marijuana possession will have a misdemeanor on their record, rather than paying a civil fine.
New York is one of 14 states that have some marijuana decriminalization measure on the books — in addition to the 18 states and the District of Columbia that have legalized medical marijuana, and the two states that have legalized recreational marijuana. Arrests for marijuana possession and other minor drug offenses nonetheless remain frequent and disproportionately impact African Americans.
U.S. Drug Czar Gil Kerlikowske, known for opposing legalization of even medical marijuana, joined with NAACP President Ben Jealous in an op-ed published yesterday that declares: “It is clear that we cannot simply arrest our way out of the drug problem. Instead, we need smarter, results-based criminal justice policies to keep our communities safe, including treatment for people with substance use disorders and mental health issues.”