In a major policy shift that mirrors Americans' attitudes toward marijuana, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio and New York Police Commissioner William J. Bratton announced Monday that people found in possession of small amounts of marijuana will get tickets rather than be arrested.
Under the new guidelines, which are set to go into effect Nov. 19, people who are found with 25 grams of marijuana or less in New York City will be issued summonses — rather than be handcuffed, transported to the station house and fingerprinted, as had previously been the case.
"I came into office with a pledge to incessantly heal wounds of the past," de Blasio said at a news conference. "Today is another step."
In 2013, the NYPD arrested more than 28,000 people for marijuana possession, most of them black or Hispanic, the New York Times reports. And according to a report by the Marijuana Arrest Research Project, 86 percent of those arrested for marijuana possession in the city through August were black or Hispanic. The study found the NYPD has made roughly the same number of marijuana arrests under de Blasio during the first eight months of the year (19,684) as it did during the same period in 2013 (20,080), when Mayor Michael Bloomberg was in office.
"We've come to a policy that makes sense," de Blasio said. "This policy will give officers more time to continue with their work ... rather than get bogged down with making an unproductive arrest."
"I don't want [my officers] chasing down 25-gram bags of marijuana and tied up for hours in court," Bratton said.
There are exceptions to the new policy, the commissioner said: Those burning or smoking marijuana in public, or possessing marijuana in public view, are still subject to arrest.
Bratton, who held up a bag of oregano to illustrate what 25 grams of marijuana looks like, said officers will have the discretion to estimate how much a person in possession of marijuana is actually carrying.
In the 1970s, 10 states — including New York — decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, treating it as a civil, rather than criminal, offense. In 1977, the New York state Legislature made private possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana a noncriminal offense.
"But since the mid-1990s," the New York Times notes, "police have routinely arrested people they found with marijuana and charged them with a misdemeanor, even though it was only supposed to apply to marijuana that was burning or discovered in 'public view.'"
New York City's policy change comes on the heels of the November elections, when Oregon and Alaska became the third and fourth states to legalize recreational marijuana, and Washington, D.C., voters approved a measure that will remove all penalties for possession and home cultivation of limited amounts of marijuana by adults 21 and older.
A Gallup poll conducted last week found that a majority of Americans — 51 percent — favor legalizing the use of marijuana.
Both Bratton and de Blasio said they were not in favor of legalization. But pro-marijuana activists nonetheless welcomed the news.
"Mayor de Blasio is doing the right thing by ordering NYPD to stop the arrests," Gabriel Sayegh, managing director at the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement to Yahoo News.
But the proposal can only be considered a first step, "and a complicated one," Sayegh says.
"The summons creates real problems for people," Sayegh continued. "The summons process in NYC is a major entry point into the maze of our broken criminal justice system, so even with a ticket, people will be swept into that maze with limited options for exit. And right now, the police are almost exclusively arresting young men of color for marijuana, often as the result of an illegal search. It doesn’t make sense to allow a situation where we go from having gross racial disparities in arrests to gross racial disparities in summonses."
Mayor de Blasio is seeking to regain the city's trust in the NYPD following years of controversial stop-and-frisk practices championed by Ray Kelly, Bloomberg's police commissioner. According to NYPD figures, 52 percent of the 4.4 million people stopped from January 2004 through June 2012 were black. 31 were percent Hispanic and just 10 percent were white. And 88 percent of those stopped by police were not arrested.
In August 2013, a federal judge ruled the stop-and-frisk policy "largely unconstitutional."
Kelly defended the practice as a necessary evil in the fight against violent crime.
"The stark reality is that violence is happening disproportionately in minority communities," he said last year. "And that unfortunately is in big cities throughout America."
In January, de Blasio and Bratton vowed to reform the NYPD's stop-and-frisk policy.
“We will not break the law to enforce the law," Bratton said. "That’s my solemn promise to every New Yorker, regardless of where they were born, where they live, or what they look like. Those values aren’t at odds with keeping New Yorkers safe — they are essential to long-term public safety."
In July, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson announced his intention to not prosecute most cases of people found with small amounts of marijuana. Since then, Thompson's office has dismissed 849 misdemeanor marijuana cases involving police arrests, according to the Times, or about 34 percent of 2,526 such cases in Brooklyn.