Most New Yorkers are unaware that the state decriminalized possession of 25 grams of cannabis, or seven-eighths of an ounce, 40 years ago—and that the law is still on the books. New York’s Marijuana Reform Act of 1977 made private possession a violation, rather than a criminal offense. The law also made possession in “public view” a misdemeanor.
And yet cannabis possession remains one of the top arrest categories in New York State, averaging more than 60 arrests per day. In New York City, the NYPD has arrested more than 700,000 people for low-level cannabis possession over the last 20 years. In 2017, more than 17,000 people were arrested for criminal possession of marijuana in New York City. That works out to about 46 arrests every day.
Kassandra Frederique is the New York State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, the nation’s leading drug policy reform organization. Her daily agenda includes managing the DPA’s New York portfolio and working to end the drug war in New York. We caught up with her earlier this week, and asked her to name the most promising avenues for cannabis reform in New York City (short of statewide adult-use legalization, of course). She listed five steps that can be taken almost immediately.
#1: Stop Arresting People for Cannabis
“New York should not be enforcing marijuana arrests,” says Frederique. “The police should be moving away from marijuana enforcement. We should get to a place where the NYPD is acting where it is the lowest level of enforcement priority. Instead they are actively looking for folks who are using marijuana, to arrest.”
#2: Talk About, and Enact, Real Decriminalization
“A larger conversation needs to be had about policing in general. That’s a conversation about how we want law enforcement to interact with New Yorkers, where it comes to drugs, and get to a place where New York has truly removed the criminal penalties. District Attorneys need to decline to prosecute.
#3: ‘Leave People Alone’: Rethink the Police-Community Relationship
“Police need to leave people alone. We need to have a broader conversation about how policing works. We need to create an accountability structure between police and communities.”
#4: Quit the Phony Talk About Police Response
The biggest issue to come out of the recent New York City Council hearing on cannabis enforcement, Frederique says, is the phony narrative peddled by police officials: The idea that the bulk of cannabis arrests stem from police responding to 311 or 911 calls from members of the community at large.
“It is not a sufficient excuse for the policing that is done in communities,” Frederique says. She credits Kristin West Savali’s article in The Root, which cited data from the Marijuana Arrests Project, for setting the framework for the questions that City Council members asked the top cops during the hearing.
#5: Open NYPD Data to Everyone
“We have been waiting for this [arrest and marijuana violation] data for the past four years. We were really clear that this data needed to be addressed. The New York City Council should have a complete data set compiled around summonses, cross referenced by geographical location, age and race, that allows us to follow how they are doing the arrests.”
She also debunked the assertion made by the NYPD that they can’t compile accurate data because “the reports were filled out using various different slang terms for cannabis, such as weed, pot, and/or marijuana.” The notion that an officer would write an arrest report that cited, for example, “criminal possession of weed,” is unprofessional.
“Not formalizing the way they are filling out their reports, should not result in communities of color being placed under heavy criminalization,” she added. “If the NYPD doesn’t instruct their officers to write it the same way, by either standardizing the term, or checking the same box of their forms, then they are deliberately using smoke and mirrors, while we are asking for clarity. We need to be able to see the full picture to end prohibition.”