Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance announced in a press release on Tuesday that his office would no longer prosecute marijuana possession and smoking cases, starting immediately on August 1.
In his statement on the decision, Vance noted that this new policy is expected to reduce Manhattan marijuana prosecutions from approximately 5,000 per year to fewer than 200, which is a 96 percent reduction. Historically, New York City has been one of the most prolific jailers for cannabis crimes in the country.
“Every day I ask our prosecutors to keep Manhattan safe and make our justice system more equal and fair,” said Vance.
“The needless criminalization of pot smoking frustrates this core mission, so we are removing ourselves from the equation,” he said.
Vance pointed to the DA’s own research that found virtually no public safety rationale to continue arresting and prosecuting people for smoking marijuana, and no moral justification for the intolerable racial disparities that underlie cannabis law enforcement.
“Tomorrow, our Office will exit a system wherein smoking a joint can ruin your job, your college application, or your immigration status, but our advocacy will continue. I urge New York lawmakers to legalize and regulate marijuana once and for all,” said Vance.
Last week, Vance distributed the policy to Manhattan’s assistant district attorneys, New York Police Department, Office of Court Administration and public defense organizations.
The statement also noted that, in light of the new policy and the decriminalization of marijuana offenses in other states, the district attorney’s office has been working with public defense organizations and criminal justice stakeholders to proactively seal past marijuana convictions en masse this coming autumn.
There are going to be a couple exceptions to the new policy of marijuana decriminalization. Of course, distribution of cannabis will still be illegal. Manhattan’s new policy outlines that this includes the rule that a cannabis stash cannot be split into 10 or more bags. However, this means that even those who plan to supply the underground market in Manhattan can stick to a “nine is fine” policy.
The other exception that the district attorney’s new policy carves out is for cannabis cases that involve a “demonstrated public safety threat.” Specifically, the policy notes that this includes cases where the defendant is “currently under active investigation for a violent offense or other serious crime.”
The nation’s oldest marijuana policy reform organization is watching the situation on the island of Manhattan with a close eye.
“It has been fascinating and encouraging to see district attorneys in the nation’s marijuana arrest capital turn against the criminalization of marijuana possession, something that has been overly focused on targeting already marginalized communities,” NORML Executive Director Erik Altieri told Cannabis Now. “We would hope that state lawmakers take heed of the recent Department of Health report calling for marijuana’s outright legalization in the Empire State and immediately fix the flaws in their current decriminalization law while beginning to move forward to a legalized and regulated system for adult use.”
Over at the Marijuana Policy Project spokesman Mason Tvert told Cannabis Now that the New York City political establishment is preparing the city for the collapse of marijuana prohibition as fast as they can.
“It is probably good politics and it is definitely good policy,” said Tvert. “The D.A.’s announcement, along with the governor’s task force report last month and the state Democratic Party’s endorsement in May, suggests there is a growing sense of urgency to get something done. There is absolutely no justification for arresting countless adults each year for simple marijuana possession and the powers that be are probably growing tired of trying to explain why things haven’t changed yet.”
New York’s most pressing issue around marijuana in recent years has been the targeting of black and brown communities for enforcement, despite the conversation around the issue coming back up as different reports came to light. Early this year, the New York Times spent two months researching and reported that the problem still exists. With one stroke of the pen this week, Manhattan has likely been removed from this equation.