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Bloomberg Says No More Jail Stays for Minor NYC Marijuana Busts

In his final state of the city address Thursday, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced that people caught with small amounts of marijuana in the city will no longer be subjected to overnight stays in the city's jails, but will merely be taken to the precinct for a desk appearance and then released.

New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg (wikimedia.org)
The move is in response to increasingly loud criticism of the city's extremely high marijuana arrest rates, which are taking place despite New York state having decriminalized pot possession more than three decades ago. The NYPD managed to get its pound of flesh from marijuana users by intimidating them into removing baggies from their pockets, then charging them with the misdemeanor of public possession of marijuana, not the infraction of simple possession, and then making them sit in holding cells for up to 24 hours.

During Bloomberg's 10-year tenure as mayor, more than 400,000 people have been arrested on pot possession charges, nearly 350,000 of them young men of color. That number has begun to decline in recent months as police have modified their practices under pressure.

"We know that there's more we can do to keep New Yorkers, particularly young men, from ending up with a criminal record," Bloomberg said. "Commissioner Kelly and I support Governor Cuomo's proposal to make possession of small amounts of marijuana a violation, rather than a misdemeanor, and we'll work to help him pass it this year. But we won't wait for that to happen," he said.

"Right now, those arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana are often held in custody overnight. We're changing that. Effective next month, anyone presenting an ID and clearing a warrant check will be released directly from the precinct with a desk appearance ticket to return to court. It's consistent with the law, it's the right thing to do, and it will allow us to target police resources where they're needed most."

Drug reform and civil rights activists said it was a step in the right direction, but a small one.

"Mayor Bloomberg stopped defending the indefensible and now recognizes that we cannot afford to criminalize youth of color for carrying small amounts of marijuana," said Alredo Carrasquillo, a community organizer with VOCAL-NY. "But being 'consistent with the law' means more than just issuing desk appearance tickets instead of putting people in jail. Most people targeted for these arrests only produce marijuana in plain view after being illegally searched during stop, question and frisk encounters with police. Mayor Bloomberg's support for marijuana reform is a step in the right direction but does not solve the fundamental problems with the NYPD's policing strategies."

"We agree with the mayor that there's more we can do keep New Yorkers, especially young people of color, from ending up with a criminal record," said Kyung Ji Rhee, the juvenile justice director for the Center for NuLeadership. "For instance, the mayor can direct Commissioner Kelly to immediately cease and desist NYPD’s broken 'stop and frisk' program. We must stop these mass arrests and criminalizing people for simply possessing small amounts of marijuana. And we can get the police out of our schools to end the 'schools to prison' pipeline."

"This new policy is a step in the right direction -- and it's the direct result of the ongoing campaign led by community groups in New York to end these racially biased, unpopular, unjust and expensive arrests," said Gabriel Sayegh, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "Marijuana possession is the number one arrest in New York City and with this new policy change, tens of thousands of people, mostly young men of color, will no longer be held in jail overnight on for possessing small amounts of marijuana. But the arrests themselves need to end -- period. Now the legislature must act -- immediately -- to pass Gov. Cuomo's marijuana decriminalization bill. Every reasonable New Yorker supports the measure. Reform is long, long overdue."

New York City, NY
United States
Permission to Reprint: This article is licensed under a modified Creative Commons Attribution license.
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