Vance Stops Pot Busts, Brown Will Proceed

By David Brand

Queens County District Attorney Richard Brown will not join his Manhattan counterpart in declining to prosecute low-level marijuana offenses — at least not yet.

In a statement to the Queens Daily Eagle, Brown said his office will wait to see how the New York Police Department’s new marijuana enforcement directives play out.

“We will evaluate the arrests made by the NYPD and will proceed with valid cases — the vast majority of which are eligible for an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal,” Brown said in a statement. “We will continue to offer dispositions that are appropriate.”

On Tuesday, Manhattan County District Attorney Cy Vance announced that, effective Aug. 1, his office will no longer prosecute marijuana smoking and low-level possession. Vance said the DA’s office “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.”

Before issuing the new policy, the Manhattan DA compiled a report titled “Marijuana, Fairness, Public Safety” that examined prosecution and legalization strategies nationwide.

“Every day I ask our prosecutors to keep Manhattan safe and make our justice system more equal and fair,” Vance said. “The needless criminalization of pot smoking frustrates this core mission, so we are removing ourselves from the equation.”

The Manhattan DA’s office also said it would work with nonprofit organizations to seal past marijuana convictions in Fall 2018.

Brown’s approach mirrors the way his office proceeded with marijuana prosecutions after Vance and Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez announced they would stop prosecuting the vast majority of people arrested for low-level marijuana offenses in May. At the time, Brown said he would wait until the NYPD released the results of a 30-day report conducted by a Working Group on Marijuana Enforcement.

That report, released in June, advised the City to revise its marijuana enforcement policy by instructing officers to issue summonses instead of making arrests in the majority of low-level marijuana possession and smoking incidents. Brown praised the new policy as a “wise middle ground” between legalization and traditional enforcement.

“By choosing this sensible path,” Brown said in June. “The Police Department will continue to have the ability to control the activity without the majority of those committing the offenses being arrested and put through the system.”

On Tuesday, several Queens lawmakers praised Vance’s decision to stop prosecuting low-level marijuana cases.

“Thank you ⁦[Manhattan DA]⁩ for leading the way,” Council Member Donovan Richards said on Twitter. “While I’m no psychic, I predict the sky won’t fall because we aren’t locking-up people of color over low-level weed offenses.”

Council Member Rory Lancman, chair of the Committee on the Justice System, said the move away from prosecuting low-level marijuana offenses will address mass incarceration.

“The police can’t police what prosecutors won’t prosecute,” Lancman said. “With his new marijuana policy today, District Attorney Vance is using his authority and discretion to make our justice system fairer, while preventing expensive and needless incarceration.”

Lancman said he encourages “all of the city’s District Attorneys to follow DA Vance’s lead and put an end to prosecution of marijuana cases in New York City.”

Reports consistently demonstrate that marijuana arrests and prosecution overwhelmingly affect people of color, though people use marijuana at similar rates across racial and ethnic identities.

In the first six months of 2018, 93 percent of people arrested for marijuana possession in New York City were black or Hispanic, according to data compiled from NYPD arrest records and distributed by the Police Reform Organizing Project.

Between Jan. 19 and Aug. 2, 2017, PROP staff and volunteers visited arraignment courts in Manhattan, the Bronx, Brooklyn and Queens 69 times to observe and record 1,612 cases. Of those cases, 1,438 — or 89.2 percent — involved people of color. People of color make up roughly half of New York City’s population, according to 2010 census data. PROP reported that Possession of Marijuana in the 5th Degree was the most common charge observed.

Of the 446 cases that PROP observed in Queens, 381 of the defendants  — 85.4 percent — were people of color. The number outpaces the proportion of Queens residents who identify as people of color — roughly 72 percent.

On Tuesday, PROP returned to Queens Criminal Court and observed 27 cases, of which 25 — or 92 percent — involved people of color. None were charged with low-level marijuana offenses, however.

Such vast racial disparities motivated Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD to examine policing and enforcement strategies last spring. Their analysis resulted in the new enforcement policy, which will go into effect on Sept. 1.

Meanwhile, legal marijuana is becoming more prevalent in Queens.

The borough is now home to two of New York City’s six medical marijuana dispensaries. The newest facility opened in Forest Hills in July. The other is located in Elmhurst.

A bucket hat decorated with marijuana leaves on a Queens street // Eagle photo by David Brand