Manhattan DA

On July 31, the office of Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., the district attorney of Manhattan, told the press that on the following day, the office would “decline to prosecute” marijuana possession and smoking cases. This announcement follows a news story from May that the mayor of New York, Bill de Blasio, told the NYPD to stop arresting people for smoking in public.

Other New York politicians have announced their intention to change the status quo in New York. Cynthia Nixon, who is running for governor, has made legalization and relief from racially disparate enforcement two planks in her platform. Also in July, the incumbent governor, Andrew Cuomo, released a report from the state’s Department of Health that recommends that the state legalize adult-use marijuana. According to a press release from the governor’s office, “The report concludes that the benefits of taxing and regulating marijuana far outweighs any potential negative consequences.”

Another call for legalization has come from New York City Comptroller Scott M. Stringer, who released a report arguing for legalization of adult-use marijuana in New York.

Strong Public Support

One reason that New York’s politicians may have for supporting legalization in 2018 is that two thirds of New Yorkers support it. The change in policy at the Manhattan DA’s office is expected to reduce the number of marijuana prosecutions by 96 percent. Vance said:

“Every day I ask our prosecutors to keep Manhattan safe and make our justice system more equal and fair. The needless criminalization of pot smoking frustrates this core mission, so we are removing ourselves from the equation. 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. Tomorrow, our Office will exit a system wherein smoking a joint can ruin your job, your college application, or your immigration status, but our advocacy will continue. I urge New York lawmakers to legalize and regulate marijuana once and for all.”

The announcement goes on to specify a few exemptions. While smoking and possession are generally not to be prosecuted, sellers (defined as those in possession of large amounts that are individually packaged in 20 or more bags for sale) and those presenting a threat to public safety (such as behaving violently in public or being under investigation for a violent crime) may still be arrested.

The announcement also states that the “D.A.’s Office has been working with public defense organizations and criminal justice stakeholders to proactively seal past marijuana convictions en masse in Fall 2018.”

The expected 96-percent reduction in arrests is telling. Research has shown that people of color have been arrested for marijuana offenses at a much higher rate than whites. And if elimination of arrests for low-level offenses such as possession and smoking in public is expected to reduce arrests by 96 percent, it is clear that most people of color who were arrested for marijuana had their opportunities for employment, schooling, immigration status, and housing severely curtailed on account of a low-level offense.

These changes make 2018 a year to remember. With the support of voters, various office holders and office seekers in New York not only announced support for legalization but also for correcting past and present racial injustice in enforcement.

What do you think? Will red states, such as in North Dakota and Oklahoma, follow suit? Leave a comment below.

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