Efforts to decriminalize marijuana in New York are going nowhere for a while, but tokers caught in Brooklyn could get a break under the man likely to become the borough’s new prosecutor.
Ken Thompson, Democratic candidate for King’s County district attorney, told the Wall Street Journal in late October he would effectively decriminalize weed in Brooklyn if elected.
“These arrests are clogging the criminal-justice system,” Thompson said.
Thompson, a former federal prosecutor, won the Democratic nomination in the September primary, defeating the six-term incumbent, District Attorney Charles Hynes. After losing, Hynes opted to run in the Nov. 5 general election as a Republican, with the joint backing of the state’s Conservative Party. Brooklyn, like the rest of New York City, is overwhelmingly Democratic, and Thompson is the favorite.
Marijuana prohibition is a matter of state and federal law, not local policy. But as an enforcer of state laws, Thompson would have a great deal of discretion in dealing with cannabis offenses.
Right now, possession of less than 25 grams of pot is decriminalized in New York, punishable by a minor fine, but only if the weed is concealed. If it’s open to public view, it’s a misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of $250 and 90 days in jail.
Thompson said he would apply a minor civil fine to any possession under 15 grams (slightly more than half an ounce), whether concealed or open. The law itself wouldn’t change, only Thompson’s enforcement of it.
Smoking weed in public would still be treated as a misdemeanor, but the effect of the change on the criminal justice system could be significant. According to the Wall Street Journal, nearly 13,000 people were arrested for minor possession last year. Marijuana busts are the single biggest reason for arrest in New York City.
Thompson’s proposal comes in the wake of recent failure by the state Legislature to enact marijuana reforms. Gov. Andrew Cuomo called for new cannabis laws early this year, and the state Assembly passed a decriminalization bill with an effect similar to Thompson’s proposal.
But the bill stalled in the state Senate, despite backing from the city’s police chief and all five of its district attorneys, including Hynes. Thompson said he’s following the direction already set by state lawmakers.
“I’m going to treat possession of small amounts of marijuana as violations, the way the governor is calling for,” Mr. Thompson said. “If the [state] Senate Republicans are not willing to pass that law, then I don’t think the people of Brooklyn can wait.”