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Julie Turkewitz, Housing Works: After Long Fight, Police Commissioner Pledges to Follow NYC Marijuana Law

After Long Fight, Police Commissioner Pledges to Follow NYC Marijuana Law
by Julie Turkewitz , September 27, 2011

The policy change could prevent tens of thousands of arrests each year.

Today, advocacy groups, city council members and state representatives gathered in front of New York City police headquarters to thank the police commissioner for doing something momentous: Following the law.

In response to growing public pressure, Commissioner Ray Kelly issued an order last week that clarified existing marijuana possession laws, ordering officers not to arrest individuals for possessing marijuana in public view when complying with an officer’s demand to empty their pockets.

“This is definitely a victory,” said Terri King, a community leader at VOCAL-New York, which led the years-long effort to end illegal marijuana arrests. “For VOCAL, for New York, for society.”

The policy change could mean tens of thousands of fewer arrests each year, saving the city millions of dollars in a tight economic climate. It will also help many people avoid arrests that often become serious barriers to acquiring a job, housing, education and health care.

“Being busted for a minor offense, when you go looking for a job, that really limits you as far as making a difference in your life,” said Cameron Craig of VOCAL. “Instead of going up the ladder to the ninth or tenth rung, you’re stuck on the third or fourth rung, maybe forever.”

Marijuana possession has been decriminalized in New York City since 1977, and possession of small amounts—25 grams or less—is a violation punishable with a $100 fine, not arrest or jail time.

Possession of marijuana in public view, however, can land an individual in jail. Because “stop and frisk” policies allow police to ask individuals to empty their pockets, hundreds of thousands of people in the city have been arrested for being forced to display small amounts of marijuana.

While marijuana use is higher among whites, 86 percent of those arrested by New York City police last year were black or Latino.

Since 1996, city police have arrested more than 535,000 people for possessing small amounts of marijuana. In 2010 alone, they arrested 50,383 people for possession, making it the number one cause of arrest in the city.

VOCAL and others who fought for the policy change, including the Drug Policy Alliance, the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives, and several city council members and state politicians, hailed the commissioner’s announcement. But they also said that there is still much to be done to achieve a criminal justice system that treats people of all races equally.

Now, advocates are fighting to make this order applicable to the entire state by passing state bill A. 7620/S.5187.

“We need to build on this great thing you’ve done today,” said City Council Member Jumaane Williams, who recently had his own scuffle with the city police. “Let’s continue this discussion so that everyone feels warm and fuzzy here at One Police Plaza.”

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