NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton announced on Nov. 10 that New York City police will now write tickets instead of handcuffing people who are caught with less than 25 grams of marijuana. Rather than being taken to station houses for fingerprinting, these individuals will be issued court summonses. Although the cost of the fine has not yet been revealed, this reform still marks a positive change. The New York City Police Department makes tens of thousands of arrests annually for low-level marijuana offenses. In 2013 alone, over 28,000 people overall were arrested for marijuana possession, and they were overwhelmingly black or Hispanic. This policy shift represents a notable effort that indicates Mayor Bill de Blasio’s commitment to address the ineffective crackdown on marijuana and the stop-and-frisks that have ensued.
Since 1977, the maximum penalty for carrying up to 25 grams of marijuana has been a $100 fine. Critics say police officers have exploited a loophole in the law that enables them to stop individuals and ask them to empty their pockets, creating an opportunity for a public possession arrest. Current reforms come amid strained relations between the NYPD and the public. A May 2014 study by the Marijuana Arrest Research Project highlighted the racial disparity in current possession policing. During the first three months of this year, 86 percent of people arrested for marijuana possession in the city were black or Hispanic. De Blasio, whose campaign platform included an emphatic stance against stop-and-frisk, has strived to soothe tensions — a difficult task when considering how deeply entrenched the practice is in New York City’s consciousness.
The removal of arrest warrants going forward is most critical. Black men are disproportionately arrested for drug-related crimes throughout the United States, roughly twice as often as their white counterparts. If current trends continue, one-third of all black men will, at some point, go to prison. While in prison, these men become burdens to the government and are absent in communities that desperately need them present. The removal of arrest penalties represents an important step for improving welfare in majority black and majority Hispanic communities — the more young men present, the more families supported, the more jobs held and the more solid the social framework.
The decision to ticket rather than arrest can be seen as an affirmative advancement in rolling back the war on drugs, which has been ineffective in several respects. The crackdown on marijuana has resulted in excessive arrests, failed containment, racial profiling and wasted resources. By ticketing people with small amounts of marijuana, the NYPD is taking a reasonable stance against a relatively harmless crime. This policy is long overdue. Hopefully, it will be rehabilitative for New York City and serve as a productive step in righting the wrongs that can be attributed to the questionable enforcement of the stop-and-frisk program.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Nov. 11 print edition. Email the WSN Editorial Board at [email protected]