By Monday morning, it had been widely reported that NYC is planning to drastically alter how it handles arrests for small amounts of weed possession. Mayor de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton will announce the changes at a press conference Monday afternoon, nearly four decades after New York State set the stage for decriminalization.
Back when gas cost 65 cents a gallon and hip-hop wasn’t even called hip-hop, New York State decriminalized weed — the year was 1977. The bipartisan bill, dubbed the Marijuana Reform Act of 1977, passed, because, as the Drug Policy Alliance notes, politicians agreed that “arrests, criminal prosecutions and criminal penalties are inappropriate for people who possess small quantities of marihuana [sic] for personal use.”
Moving forward, first time offenders possessing 25 grams or less would receive a maximum fine of $100. That meant no cuffs, no mandatory trip to central booking, and no criminal record. However, there was a caveat: If the herb was “open to public view,” a person could be charged with a misdemeanor. So basically, a person caught carrying almost an ounce of weed in their backpack would receive less of a charge than someone caught smoking a roach in the street. That seems fair enough. Then the NYPD created a loophole and started disproportionately enforcing the law against blacks and Hispanics, even though whites smoke just as much weed — if not more — than minorities.
The nation’s largest police force essentially abused stop-and-frisks in two ways:
First, the controversial tactic was originally designed to help officers seize weapons, but the police have utilized it as a dragnet to charge people with drug possession.
Secondly, the city’s police force has been systemically converting what should be civil citations into criminal charges by forcing people to remove weed from their pockets or backpacks, elevating what should be a desk appearance ticket into a misdemeanor. Since blacks and Hispanics were the most likely demographic to be stopped and weed is the most popular drug in the world, the majority of arrests were of minorities.
After years of outrage, community activism, a shift in the collective mindset, and a pledge by a heroic Brooklyn DA, this huge disparity in the criminal justice justice system became a political issue that was supposed to be addressed by state lawmakers in Albany. They vowed to amend the public view clause of the law. But that didn’t happen and now, ultimately, New York City will have to right a wrong that was righted when Jimmy Carter was president. If that doesn’t work, one brave state senator has an even better backup plan.
(Photo: Don Goofy)