By David Brand
Queens leads the five boroughs in low-level marijuana possession cases — misdemeanor charges that have drastically decreased in volume under new NYPD protocols but are still marked by stunning racial disparities.
The number of unlawful, fourth- and fifth-degree marijuana possession cases have dropped significantly in Queens this year, but the borough accounts for more low-level weed prosecutions than Manhattan, Brooklyn and Staten Island combined, according to client data compiled by The Legal Aid Society, which represents about half the indigent defendants in New York City.
And while low-level marijuana arrests have decreased by more than 88 percent citywide, racial disparities in who gets busted for weed possession have actually gotten worse.
In fact, nearly every single person busted for low-level weed possession in New York City was Black or Latinx during the first three months of this year, according to data from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services, which was provided by the NYPD. Of the 476 people arrested for fifth-degree marijuana possession citywide, just 20 were white, according to the data set. The other 456 people arrested — more than 95 percent — were people of color.
People of color accounted for 93 percent of the 4,081 people arrested for fifth-degree marijuana possession during the first three months of 2018. Fifth-degree marijuana possession includes smoking in public or possessing more than 25 grams of marijuana.
“Even though arrests are down, the racial disparities are increasing. And they’re meaningful. You can see who they are targeting for sale and possession,” said Robert Gangi, director of the Police Reform Organizing Project, which obtained and shared the data from the state.
Queens leads in weed busts
Legal Aid clients in Queens accounted for 141 of the defendants charged with low-level weed possession in the city during the first three months of the year. Legal Aid also represented another 46 clients charged with fourth- and fifth-degree marijuana possession in Queens in April, for a total of 187 clients in the first four months of the year.
That marks a roughly 63 percent decrease compared to the 504 people busted for marijuana possession in the same time period last year, but Queens still leads among the five boroughs.
Legal Aid attorneys in Brooklyn represented 62 clients, and in Manhattan 63 clients, charged with fourth- and fifth-degree marijuana possession, while their attorneys in Staten Island represented 56 clients charged with low-level marijuana possession in the first four months of the year.
That is 171 total clients across those three boroughs, 16 fewer than in Queens alone.
Only the Bronx comes close to Queens in terms of weed possession charges this year. Legal Aid attorneys represented 141 clients charged with fourth- and fifth-degree marijuana possession in the Bronx in the first four months of 2019, compared to 628 last year.
Questionable impact, disparate application
All seven Democratic candidates for Queens DA have pledged not to prosecute low-level marijuana possession, which could discourage police in Queens from making arrests for weed.
DAs in Manhattan and Brooklyn have already directed their assistants not to prosecute low-level marijuana offenses in most cases, though the data demonstrates that such prosecutions continue.
Anthony Posada, the supervising attorney of the Community Justice Unit at Legal Aid, said the continued arrests and prosecutions fail to serve a public safety interest and continue to punish communities of color, despite efforts to decriminalize.
“Decriminalization is not that answer. It fails to address the past harms of criminalization, and our clients will continue to be targets,” Posada said. “Tinkering around the edges is insufficient and the only solution to this disparity is full legalization and Albany must act to repeal the law this session.”
Gangi, from PROP, said decriminalization has worked — for wealthy, white New Yorkers.
“I live in a fairly prosperous area in the Upper West Side of Manhattan and smell marijuana frequently. For them it has really been decriminalized and they have no expectation of their smoking being interrupted by a police officer,” Gangi said. “You’ve already effectively decriminalized it for white people. Decriminalize it for all people.”
The Queens DA’s Office did not immediately provide a response for this story, but in the past the office has commented.
“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,” a spokesperson for the Queens DA’s Office told the Eagle in August 2018, after Manhattan DA Cy Vance announced he would not prosecute low-level marijuana offenses. “We will continue to offer dispositions that are appropriate.”
In an interview with the Eagle last month, Senior Executive Assistant DA James Quinn said the majority of people charged with misdemeanors, including marijuana-related offenses, are released without a judge setting bail. In most cases, defendants plead guilty and are issued a fine.
Indeed, PROP’s court monitoring volunteers have not reported seeing a person jailed after pleading guilty for low-level marijuana possession, Gangi said. Nevertheless, the arrest can still be traumatizing and the charge disruptive, he said.
“The suggestion from what the DAs are saying is, ‘So what, the cops are arresting you,’” he said. “Well, that’s a big f---ing deal. The cops are arresting you, putting you in the patrol car, bringing you to the precinct, locking you up and holding you for the day.”
“Or they give you a desk appearance ticket and you have to return to the arraignment part and you have an open case hanging over you,” he continued.