Many New Yorkers don’t know that the state decriminalized marijuana possession forty years ago – and that law is still on the books. When New York State passed the Marihuana Reform Act of 1977 the bipartisan legislation, sponsored by a Republican State Senator and a Democratic State Assemblyperson, removed criminal penalties for possession of marijuana for personal use.
They are unaware, primarily, because in the last twenty years the police in New York State have still made more than 800,000 arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana. On average, more than 60 people are arrested every day for marijuana possession in New York State, making marijuana possession one of the top arrests in the state.
These arrests have been largely justified by a loophole left in the law allowing police offers to distinguish between public and private personal possession. Due to the fact that possession in “public view” remains a crime, this loophole – coupled with pervasive and racially-biased over-policing of certain communities – has resulted in continued mass arrests for personal possession of marijuana despite decriminalization.
On average, more than 60 people are arrested every day for marijuana possession in New York State, making marijuana possession one of the top arrests in the state.
This paradox is able to exist because of significant racial bias in enforcement. While drug use and drug selling occur at similar rates across racial and ethnic groups, Black and Latino individuals are arrested for possessing marijuana at vastly disproportionate rates. Nationally, Black people were nearly four times more likely to be arrested for possession than white people in 2010. The discrepancy is more extreme in New York, where more than 85% of all those arrested annually are Black and Latino; nearly 70% of those arrested are under 30 years old; and over a third are under 21 years old.
Under New York Law, a first offense of personal possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana is a violation punishable only by a $100 fine. The categorization of the offense as a violation means that it carries no jail time as a result of conviction, which is a key component of decriminalization.
Twenty states (including New York) and Washington D.C. have enacted various forms of marijuana decriminalization, which means that these states have replaced criminal sanctions with the imposition of civil penalties. In New York, marijuana decriminalization has fallen short and will continue to do so. It has not succeeded in curbing the costs or the harms of prohibition and has instead made the need for reform clearer.
Racially Biased Arrests Continue
Watch Drug Policy Alliance's New York director Kassandra Frederique on NY1 addressing the extremely high rates of racial disparities in low-level marijuana arrests despite an overall decrease in the number of arrests. In 2016, 86% of those arrested for low-level marijuana possession in NYC were Black or Latinx--similar to rates under Giuliani and Bloomberg.
New York Deserves Statewide Reform
Eight states and the District of Colombia have now legalized marijuana for recreational use and allowed for the growth of a multibillion dollar industry. Tax revenue is being used to build schools and re-build communities.
Decriminalization of marijuana possession is a necessary first step toward reducing the harms caused by marijuana prohibition. But it falls short in that it operates within the framework of prohibition, which is still enforced disproportionately in communities of color.
New York must also move beyond prohibition to address the damage being done to communities across the state who have suffered from marijuana prohibition and its collateral consequences. New Yorkers deserve a statewide solution to this statewide problem.
Be part of the coalition working to end prohibition in New York and build a well-regulated and inclusive marijuana industry.