Theodore Hamm & Alex Vitale | October 23, 2015
Each passing week sees a new front open up in the battle to stop arresting people for weed. On Wednesday, insurgent Democratic presidential contender Bernie Sanders expressed support for legalization, a position that’s also on the agenda of Justin Trudeau’s Liberal Party, which prevailed in Canada this past Monday. Virgin’s Richard Branson, meanwhile, recently made headlines by leaking a document indicating there is now a robust debate within the United Nations over the decriminalization of all drugs.
The debate has also been playing out on the streets of New York City, where despite a recent shift towards decriminalization, police reform activists are raising fresh questions about disparities when it comes to pot and the law.
Last November, Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner Bill Bratton announced that the NYPD would move away from marijuana arrests and instead issue more summonses, which are similar to traffic tickets but require an appearance in court.
And it’s making a difference: So far in 2015, according to state data, pot arrests have declined by over 40 percent, and likely will total between 14,000 and 16,000 for the year. Summonses are up by 25 percent and on pace to reach nearly 17,000 by the end of December. All told, the combined number of punitive interactions—arrests plus summonses—is on track to decline by about 25 percent from 2014.
“The de Blasio administration definitely deserves credit for making good on its promise that there would be fewer arrests,” says Alyssa Aguilera, political director of VOCAL-NY, which advocates for drug law reform. “But the patterns of enforcement remain exactly the same.”
To illustrate that point, VICE compared four NYPD precincts in Manhattan and Brooklyn. In the mostly Latino 23rd Precinct (East Harlem) as well as the mostly black 71st Precinct (Crown Heights–Lefferts Gardens), historically high arrest numbers have dipped, replaced by a growing number of summonses. In both precincts, the combined number of punitive interactions is on track to be nearly the same between 2014 and 2015, with roughly 500 in the 23rd and about 700 in the 71st.