The politics and policies of cannabis in New York have shifted so dramatically in the public sphere over the last two months that it would be easy to see any movement as major progress to be embraced and celebrated. Last month, when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced plans to develop policy combating the racial disparity in marijuana enforcement, advocates such as myself saw cause for hope and optimism. But de Blasio’s more recent announcement that he will only direct the NYPD to stop arresting people for pot possession – while still giving them criminal citations and continuing to arrest many people under a large number of exceptions to the new policy – will unfortunately perpetuate that racial inequity.
The arguments for outlawing cannabis usage are irrational and often fanned by those who harness that hysteria to lock up as many black and brown people as humanly possible. Dedicated advocates have been fighting back against false narratives, fear-mongering, inequities and injustices related to marijuana for years.
While I commend city officials for their intentions of combating this inequity (though New York is behind nine other states), these new policies fall short of addressing those systemic failures. In practice, the mayor’s recent announcement will address the severity of marijuana enforcement, not the disparity.
Reducing the severity of marijuana penalties is, of course, a necessary and welcome step. But that progress should not disguise the fact that the penalties still in place will disproportionately impact black and brown people in this city. Last month, the Rev. Al Sharpton said in a press conference that “the grandchild of stop-and-frisk is marijuana enforcement based on race.” With my years of working to stop abuses of stop-question-and-frisk in the City Council, and my many more years of living as a black man in New York City, I can confirm that the implicit bias that led to the egregious abuses of stop-question-and-frisk against young men of more color also led to the shocking statistic that 89 percent of those arrested for marijuana usage in the first part of 2018 were black and Hispanic. Regardless of the penalty, it is my fear and expectation that the targets of law enforcement will remain overwhelmingly people of color.
The exceptions to the policy, those who will still be arrested, will also disproportionately impact communities of color, as they are built upon the existing foundation of a failed criminal justice system. And the very existence of exceptions is contradictory to the premise that marijuana usage should not be harshly punished.
Most glaringly, elevation to arrest for those on parole or probation will result in a bias against those who have already suffered within the system, overwhelmingly people of color. This enhances, not diminishes, the perception that marijuana users are, and should be seen as, dangerous criminals. Criminal summonses have often been handed out for “quality of life” crimes such as littering and unreasonable noise. This whole area of law enforcement, like the marijuana laws, falls very disproportionately on people of color. Unlike a civil summons, these can lead to warrants, thus leading the same communities to have criminal records. We recognized this problem in city government when we passed the Criminal Justice Reform Act to redefine many such penalties. With this new policy, we retread over past mistakes.
Newly mandated reporting on the breakdown of arrests by precinct and by race will provide valuable insight, but information only brings about change when paired with action. If reporting demonstrates that these new policies are not alleviating the existing racial disparity, it will be incumbent upon the administration to pursue and enact more effective policies.
Of course, the most direct solution to eliminating racial disparity in marijuana enforcement is simple: full legalization. The current actions being taken on a city and state level are only temporary or partial remedies, and half-measure after half-measure provides only a fraction of the necessary change. It has already been reported that the governor’s commission will recommend that marijuana be legalized for recreational use.
But actually enacting this major step was never, and is not now, inevitable. Unfortunately, it is the lack of movement from Albany that causes cities like New York to use confined powers to try and address the problem piecemeal. It will still require political fortitude by elected officials to deliver what is the only way to truly end enforcement inequities, a courage that has been present in few but lacking in many who subscribe to the principle of policy by poll.
To ultimately correct the issue of racial disparity in cannabis enforcement, it is not enough to look to the future, but to correct the mistakes of the past. Unjust enforcement has led to criminal records for tens of thousands of New Yorkers, and if we are truly committed to justice, those records should be expunged. If marijuana is legalized for all communities, then all communities should be able to access its financial benefits, especially those who have been most destroyed by the illogical policies of the past.
This progressive moment on marijuana is part of a long progressive movement, and I am glad that we are moving quickly toward correcting long-legalized injustices. But we should not accept all progress as sufficient progress. We need to cut through the smokescreen and enact policies that don’t just look good but that do the most good.