Thousands of people carrying small amounts of marijuana in New York City may no longer be arrested or face criminal charges, officials have said, marking a significant shift in how the nation’s biggest city approaches policing pot.
Instead of being arrested on misdemeanour charges that carry potential punishments of up to three months in jail, many people will get court summonses and face non-criminal violations punishable by fines starting at 100 dollars (€80), Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton said.
While state law makes it a misdemeanour to have up to 25g of marijuana in “public view”, the mayor characterised stopping such arrests as an enforcement choice. He said it would give police time to pursue more serious crime and spare people from the consequences of arrest records for cases that often end up getting dismissed.
It is “a smart policy that keeps New Yorkers safe, but it is also a more fair policy”, said Mr de Blasio, a first-term Democrat who has faced pressure to keep campaign promises to reduce the more than 20,000 such arrests per year.
The announcement comes a week after voters in Washington DC, Oregon and Alaska approved measures legalising marijuana, joining Colorado and Washington states. Mr de Blasio and Mr Bratton oppose legalising the drug.
City lawmakers, district attorneys and civil rights advocates including the Rev Al Sharpton hailed the change, but the city’s biggest police union said it could tie officers’ hands.
Under the new policy, set to take effect on November 19, people caught smoking will still be arrested. Prosecutors estimated it would affect 92% of the lowest-level marijuana cases in Queens and about 50% in Brooklyn, where the district attorney has taken his own steps to curtail pot prosecutions.
The arrests averaged about 2,100 a year city-wide from 1978 through to 1995 and then shot up, peaking at 50,700 in 2011. Amid scrutiny of police tactics and some policy changes, they fell to 28,600 last year. There have been 24,080 so far this year.
Critics say the arrests are racially disproportionate: Federal statistics show similar rates of marijuana usage among whites, blacks and Hispanics, but about 86% of the New York arrests are black or Hispanic.
Critics also say police illegally search people or get them to empty their pockets to bring the drug into the open and generate arrests, though officers were reminded in 2011 they could not do that.