How Recent Moves in New York and California Foreshadow the End of the War on Drugs...

November 15th 2014

Big changes are on the horizon for small-time drug offenders in New York City. At a press conference last Monday, City Mayor Bill de Blasio and police commissioner Bill Bratton said the New York Police Department would stop making arrests for low-level marijuana possession and encourage its officers to issue tickets and court summonses instead. The NYPD currently arrests tens of thousands of people every year with no prior convictions for having small amounts of the drug.

On November 19th, people found with 25 grams or less of marijuana will be subject to a fine and a summons, bumping possession down from a crime to something similar to a traffic citation. The first summons will be for $100, and the second within three years will be $250. This does little to change marijuana usage laws in New York, however. People found smoking pot, or with an amount exceeding the personal usage threshold will still be subject to arrest, as well as people with pot that have outstanding warrants or no identification. Police officers will still use their discretion in each case, but City Hall seems to finally be making strides by pushing to curb an endemic climate of arrests for small infractions.  

As of last Monday, according to Capital New York, there were 24,081 arrests this year for smoking and possessing Marijuana in New York City. Mayor de Blasio expressed concern for a widespread punishment practice that outpaces the crime at Monday’sannouncement.

“There have been, in some cases, disastrous consequences for individuals and families,” he said. “When an individual is arrested for even the smallest possession of marijuana, it hurts their chances to get a good job, it hurts their chances to get housing, it hurts their chances to qualify for a student loan, it can literally follow them the rest of their lives,” de Blasio said, addressing the black and Latino communities that have long suffered disproportionate attention in low-level marijuana arrests. The comment lends credence to a concern many opponents of low-level drug offences and mandatory minimum sentences often cite.

De Blasio’s and Bratton’s efforts to reshape the culture of systemically disproportionate effects on minority communities by the NYPD—something the department has long been criticized for—comes as a part of a recent widespread shift in the way our nation’s litigators look at drug offenses. The recent midterm elections brought in sweeping victories for proponents of legalizing marijuana in Oregon, Alaska, and Washington D.C., leaving many in other states hopeful.

But attention has also been drawn—and rightly so—to California’s move to de-felonize some drug use, which proponents say signals a significant step toward ending mass incarceration and the “War on Drugs” policies that have shaped and defined America’s bloated criminal justice system for decades.

Proposition 47, which was approved this month on the heels of a reformation of the state’s “three strikes” law in 2012, changes six low-level, nonviolent offences, including simple drug possession, from felonies to misdemeanors. The proposition also has the potential to reduce the number of “less qualified” people—those who are imprisoned for non-violent drug offences—in state prisons and county jails, and save the state huge sums of money. According to numbers reported by the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance, Prop. 47 could make 20,000 current incarcerated people eligible for resentencing, reduce new admissions by up to 60,000 each year, and nominate between 500,000 and one million Californians for automatic felony expungement.

On the financial end, the money saved—projected to be more than $1 billion over the next five years—will be funneled back into valuable public institutions like schools, victim services, mental health, and drug addiction treatment programs. Not only will thousands of prisoners be able to hurdle the barriers to employment, education, housing, and other public programs brought on by blighted criminal records, the state simultaneously avoids misguided spending.

When outgoing attorney general Eric Holder announced in September that the federal prison population had dropped in the last year by nearly 5,000, the first time since the Carter administration that the inmate count actually decreased, some speculated that this might signal a nationwide shift—albeit a sluggish one—and a sobering up of obtuse sentencing patterns that drive state prison populations up even as national crime rates sink.

As more states opt to legalize recreational marijuana, and as California and New York begin to reform their drug policies in the public eye, that shift could be gaining some tangible traction. It’s a sad state when the fact that America has only 5 percent of the world’s population but a whopping 25 percent of the global number of incarcerated people. “The overwhelming support for [California’s Prop. 47] sends a powerful message nationally, demonstrating that voters are not just ready but eager to reduce prison populations in ways that can enhance public safety,” said Ethan Nadelmann, executive director at the Drug Policy Alliance. The first steps toward unraveling this country’s quilt of mass incarceration and harmful “War on Drugs” policies have already been taken. Let’s hope that march will continue in the coming months.