Officials in New York took a big step this month toward ending the city’s decades-long persecution of pot smokers.
Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in November that public possession of up to 25 grams of weed would no longer be cause for arrest or criminal prosecution. In essence, he decriminalized the city by executive decree.
The New York State Legislature did the same thing in the 1970s, but that law contained a giant loophole that has allowed NYC cops to arrest thousands of low-level cannabis offenders. De Blasio’s pronouncement means police will instead write tickets for possession of 25 grams or less, even when weed is on public display.
New York arrests more weed smokers than any other state
New York leads the nation in arrest rates for simple marijuana possession, and the city and state both have a long way to go.
State lawmakers approved medical marijuana earlier this year, and a bill to legalize the drug completely is pending in the legislature. But the proof of real reform may come via de Blasio’s new policy.
The progressive mayor, who ran as a reform candidate, vowed during his campaign to end the practice of throwing small-time cannabis users into jail. However, more than a year passed before he made good on that promise.
A recent report by The New York Times demonstrated that de Blasio’s administration was still arresting large numbers of pot users for simple possession, continuing a trend that started in the 1990s.
The state Legislature decriminalized marijuana about 40 years ago. Under that law, possession of 25 grams or less could result only in a small civil fine, similar to a traffic ticket.
A much-exploited loophole
However, the law allowed police to make an arrest whenever a suspect displays any amount of weed in public – smoking a joint on the stoop, for example. Years after the law passed, police began using that loophole as an excuse to arrest tens of thousands of non-violent stoners.
Typically, police would stop a suspect on the street under the so-called Terry rule. Approved by the U.S. Supreme Court in the 1960s, this rule allows cops to stop almost anyone on the street on suspicion of criminal activity and then pat them down for weapons. Almost no proof of a crime is required to make a Terry stop, better known in New York as a “stop and frisk.”
Most people subject to Terry stops have no idea what they can and cannot legally do. Police cannot force you to empty your pockets unless they feel a potential weapon during the pat-down. But they can ask you to do so in a manner that suggests you have no choice.
In other words, the NYPD has long had a practice of tricking naïve suspects into displaying their pot in public, thus subjecting them to arrest. De Blasio’s new policy should end that reality, assuming he carries through on his word.