After decimating communities of color for decades with low-level pot arrests, the NYPD and its top brass are attempting outreach in the neighborhoods where the war on drugs hit the hardest.  

According to recent reporting from Bklyner., the NYPD’s efforts are based around educating those neighborhoods about the new rules since New York lawmakers moved to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana across the whole of The Empire State. 

The big change happened on August 28th a month after Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the decriminalization of marijuana into law. At the time of the signing, Cuomo noted what happened in the communities that NYPD is now doing outreach in as a major inspiration for the change in state law. 

“Communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by laws governing marijuana for far too long, and today we are ending this injustice once and for all,” Cuomo said. “By providing individuals who have suffered the consequences of an unfair marijuana conviction with a path to have their records expunged and by reducing draconian penalties, we are taking a critical step forward in addressing a broken and discriminatory criminal justice process.”

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes noted on the serious consequences communities of color faced for a little bit of weed while others were never faced arrested or the threat of being charged. “By decriminalizing marijuana use in New York once and for all, we are ending this repressive cycle that unfairly targets certain communities,” she said.

Fast forward a few months later to last Tuesday evening, NYPD Chief of Department Terence Monahan joined community activist Kwesi Johnson and State Senator Zellnor Myrie. Monahan was pretty blunt with those in attendance, telling the crowd, “I want to be clear on one thing: Marijuana is not legal. It was decriminalized. It is not legal to possess marijuana. It went from a crime to be arrested for, to an offense that you could get a fine for.” 

Monahan said patrol officers still had the discretion about what they were going to do. But if you did end up with a summons, you may end up getting a warrant if you fail to show up to court. He also noted one of the big problems from the NYPD’s perspective is people using marijuana in public places. 

Compared to the policies of the past, the chief’s speech likely came across as endearing. 

Marijuana Enforcement in New York City

A decade ago, even though possession of a small amount of marijuana in your pocket or bag wasn’t a crime in New York, 50,300 people were arrested in New York for possession. At the time marijuana possession made up 1 out of 7 arrests and cost the city $75 Million a year. 

The worst part of all of this, 87% of those arrested were Black or Latino, and that status quo trudged on. In the first eight months of Mayor De Blasio’s administration in 2014, police were still seven times more likely to arrest someone who was Black for marijuana than a white person. Black and Latino people also still made up 86% of arrests.

Last Fall, Politico found the arrest numbers were starting to trend down. After De Blasio, who campaigned on simple marijuana possession not being a crime, finally announced the NYPD would not arrest people for low-level marijuana possession crimes As a result of the mayor’s move, arrests for possession in NYC dropped 90% from September 2017 to September 2018. But while overall numbers were down, racial disparities remained. 

One of the local activists working to give those communities that saw the brunt of policing a chance in the forthcoming NYC cannabis industry is Cannabis Cultural Association Co-Founder Jacob Plowden. His dad’s side of the family actually hails from the Brownsville community that hosted the forum. 

Plowden thinks the outreach program is decent but quoted Kwesi Johnson in noting communities are still in fear when they see the police as an occupying power and not a community asset. 

“We are talking about communities that are still dealing with trauma from over-policing and gun violence. Police need to re-educate themselves on how to interact with cannabis when it comes to the cultural correlation of neighborhoods like Brownsville and Harlem,” Plowden told High Times. “Far too long, they’ve associated criminality with public consumption of marijuana when it comes to black and brown folks. Police have to understand how they play a role in why people are medicating from things like urban PTSD.”

Plowden takes issue seeing white people smoking all the time in gentrified areas of Brooklyn without care. “Why? They understand their relationship with the police,” he said. 

Plowden spoke of NYPD Commissioner Bratton’s 2015 interview where he claimed he caught a young lady smoking on Wall Street while on her way to school and told her to put out the joint after a short conversation. “You can imagine how that scenario would have gone down on New Lots. Kwesi is right,” he said, “We have to look at how we have been treated when it comes to weed and the police have to understand why we feel like we aren’t being protected.” 

Moving Forward

Despite all the history, Plowden is now very focused on an NYC Cannabis Equity program to streamline the entry of over-policed neighborhoods into the cannabis industry with locals maintaining equity in those job-creating businesses. 

Plowden believes an effective equity program would have to be initiated in phases for communities to have a viable stake. “There needs to be expungement, re-entry programs as well as transitional programs for the legacy market to have their place once prohibition has ended,” he said.

Plowden notes NYC, and the state, will have the benefit of pulling from the best language in the various programs that currently exist around the county. Those good ideas include Illinois’ automatic expungements, Massachusetts’ Prioritized licensing program for formerly incarcerated individuals, and California’s zoning of areas that dealt with War on Drug over-policing. 

“We can only hope that New York can come to terms with setting a standard on how to legalize effectively,” Plowden said, “I can only hope that NY can adopt something within the next few years, otherwise we will lose citizens and money to surrounding states and furthermore to the criminal justice system.” 

New York City NORML Director Benjamin Leiner said the chief was spot on when he said people getting in trouble for smoking marijuana in public was one of the department’s biggest problems. “This is why decrim is not enough,” he told High Times, “This is why decrim is not enough.”

Leiner said police have been abusing their power of discretion for years, and the era of stop and frisk that preceded De Blasio’s announcement last year provides clear evidence. “They systematically went around the decrim laws since 1977 by illegally making people take out the contents of their pockets,” he said.

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