New York City may finally address its cannabis-arrest catastrophe

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After decades of advocacy and protest, ample millions of life-altering arrests and incarcerations, and billions of dollars and human-hours wasted, NYC residents may soon see some relief in how the Big Apple treats cannabis users of color here in the nation's consumption capital.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced today that the New York Police Department (NYPD) intends to reform its cannabis enforcement policies over the next months. “We must end unnecessary arrests and end disparity in enforcement,” de Blasio commented on Twitter.

The Manhattan district attorney's office, which represents the city's largest borough, says it will no longer file charges in most marijuana possession and smoking cases, according to a statement released by District Attorney Cy Vance.

The office announced it would "decline to prosecute marijuana possession and smoking cases" starting August 1, but that it had also invited the city "to recommend limited exceptions to this policy grounded in demonstrated public safety concerns before the policy becomes effection." 

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Vance commented, “The dual mission of the Manhattan DA’s Office is a safer New York and a more equal justice system ... The ongoing arrest and criminal prosecution of predominantly black and brown New Yorkers for smoking marijuana serves neither of these goals.”

Kassandra Frederique, New York State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance, commented on the city's announcement in a statement, “The conversations about overpolicing of marijuana in primarily communities of color and the economic potential that legalization represents are clearly intertwined. The way in which New York legalizes marijuana must be responsive to our legacy as the marijuana arrest capital of the world."

The Manhattan district attorney's office also reportedly aims to reduce cannabis prosecutions in particular from 5,000 a year to 200. Advocates for cannabis legalization and decriminalization have previously expressed hope that city law enforcement will minimize its cannabis-related citations and searches, too.

As Leafly noted, "The movement for cannabis reform in New York [has long been] stifled by Gov. Andrew Cuomo and [Mayor] de Blasio," making this week's news worth noting throughout the state. In recent years, New York state residents have also been forced to watch the evolution of legal cannabis happen for their regional neighbors as New Jersey, Massachusetts, Connecticut, Pennsylvania, and others have taken steps toward grasping the plant.

The announcement follows several months, years, and indeed decades of increasingly energetic public advocacy and organizing around cannabis in New York City, as related to the systemic criminalization of communities color, generations of health crises in the city and country, and other on-the-ground issues. 

On Sunday, an in-depth investigation by the The New York Times also confirmed what advocates in the city and state have been saying for years: that black and Hispanic residents of NYC are significantly more likely to be arrested for marijuana-related offenses than their white neighbors, even in mostly white neighborhoods. New Yorkers of color are also far more likely to spend months or years in jail as a result.

For those who have suffered under New York's over-punished, under-accessible, and virtually untaxed cannabis situation, the announcement signals a moment of hard-earned triumph, and the opportunity to start moving forward (and very hopefully try to catch up).

It's also been a long time coming, so hopefully those in charge of helping carry out these needed reforms will carefully make sure, and take guidance from those impacted, to get it right.

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