Marijuana reform may be on the rise in New York, but that doesn’t mean the city’s chief of police is going to let tokers slide. At least not if he catches them himself.

New York Police Department Commissioner William BrattonNYPD Commissioner William Bratton told a law school event in October that he recently came upon a young woman smoking a joint on Wall Street in downtown Manhattan. Bratton, who leads one of the world’s largest police forces, has a well-known face in New York.

“Directly in front of me is this young woman happily puffing away,” Bratton said. “She’s got her earphones in and her schoolbag, on her way to one of the local schools.”

Bratton said he and the security officer who accompanies him approached the woman from both sides and tapped her on the shoulder. She looked up and instantly knew what was happening.

“And she looked over and I wish I had a photograph of that face – ’cause she instantly recognized me,” Bratton said, drawing laughs from the audience at New York Law School. “So we politely removed the marijuana, threw it in the local sewer and just suggested she might have a better academic day without the influence of that on the way to school.”

New York’s arrest rates are declining

The amusing story highlights a serious issue in New York: The city has long had one of the nation’s worst records when it comes to low-end marijuana arrests. The drug is decriminalized, but police have used a loophole allowing them to bust people caught carrying it in public. Until recently, the NYPD had an unusually high arrest rate for nonviolent cannabis offenses.

City leaders have promised to change that. In January Mayor Bill de Blasio instituted new, more effective rules to decriminalize cannabis throughout the city, while officials in Brooklyn have stopped charging minor offenses.

Bail reform is also being instituted. Poor New Yorkers often find themselves stranded in jail on minor possession charges because they can’t afford even minimal bail. This system is used to incarcerate thousands of people without trial, few of them white.

Full legalization seems inevitable

Dr. Gunjan GoelBratton’s remarks came in response to a question from an audience member who said she belongs to a group that supports legalization. Though Bratton and de Blasio oppose recreational legalization, that is the direction the state appears to be headed.

A proposal before the New York Legislature would legalize cannabis for personal use statewide. The drug has been legal for medical use since 2014, though New York has one of the most restrictive MMJ programs in the country.

Bratton did not say how old the woman was. But her treatment probably isn’t typical. It’s certainly an open question whether she would have received the same slap on the wrist had the incident happened in Harlem.

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