Waging NonViolence: How grassroots power is shaping New York's marijuana decriminalization debate

Wagining NonViolence

How grassroots power is shaping New York’s marijuana decriminalization debate

Hannah K. Gold|July 25, 2014

Earlier this month, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson announced that his office would no longer, in many cases, prosecute low-level marijuana possession. Despite being limited to Brooklyn and allowing exceptions for people smoking in public areas or in front of children, the policy represents a historic break in the city’s marijuana decriminalization debate.

“That does not happen because someone wakes up and realizes it’s a problem,” said Kassandra Frederique, New York Policy Coordinator at the Drug Policy Alliance, a national organization that partners with local grassroots groups to reform drug policy. “There is no doubt that public pressure from grassroots organizations and people who have been impacted have influenced the talking points of elected officials on marijuana arrest policy in New York.”

The day after Thompson’s announcement, a crowd of about a hundred people, including a dozen elected officials and representatives from local advocacy groups, gathered outside City Hall in Manhattan to introduce the Fairness and Equity Act — a bill that, if passed, would reduce racial disparities in statewide marijuana arrests by demoting low-level marijuana possession from a misdemeanor to a violation that comes with a fine. It would, effectively, extend Thompson’s policy to the rest of the state and put additional protections in place for people most impacted by current policies of marijuana arrests and prosecution.

According to Frederique, the beginnings of the coordinated campaign that eventually led to the Fairness and Equity Act — and marijuana reform in New York, in general — can be traced back to 2011. A major breakthrough came in September of that year, when then police commissioner Raymond Kelly ordered his staff to stop arresting people for level-five marijuana possession, or small amounts found in public view, which are the most frequent arraignment charge levied against New York City residents.

In Albany, history began to budge toward justice in June 2012 when Cuomo promised to do away with level-five criminal possession charges. Four hundred thousand people were arrested for such possession in the city between 2002 and 2011. In 1993, the year before then mayor Giuliani hired Bill Bratton for his first term as police commissioner, 1,450 people were arrested for marijuana possession. By 2011 the number of possession arrests peaked at 50,684. In 2013, an ACLU report on racial disparities in marijuana arrests in New York State called New York “the nation’s marijuana arrest capital.”

Then, in August 2013, Brooklyn-based grassroots organization VOCAL-NY hosted a forum for the Brooklyn District Attorney candidates to discuss connections between law enforcement, the failed war on drugs and mass incarceration. During that panel a VOCAL-NY member who had been a victim of low-level marijuana arrest told his story and asked both candidates to go on record addressing the issue directly.

Communities United for Police Reform — a campaign that unites dozens of local efforts to change NYPD policy on a number of issues, and whose members include VOCAL-NY and Drug Policy Alliance — hosted a mayoral forum in May 2013. The forum was not well-attended (John Liu was the only candidate to stay for the full hour-long debate, though Bill de Blasio also put in an appearance), and it was this stark absence that ended up grabbing headlines. After that, more of New York City’s mayoral candidates spoke publicly about marijuana decriminalization.

“If you look at the mayoral race that happened, both the Republican and Democratic candidates said they supported decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana, and that’s because grassroots organizations are asking the candidates about it,” Frederique said.

Then, on June 7, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the Compassionate Care Act, which legalized medical marijuana statewide. While many see the law as a good step, it is still severely regulated. And compared to the rest of the country, New York isn’t exactly at the forefront of medical marijuana acceptance — it’s the 23rd state to allow it in some form.

Nevertheless, this recent string of announcements, policy changes, and actions that are supportive of decreasing harsh penalties and the frequency of low-level marijuana arrests is encouraging. It shows that the momentum is shifting in favor of the grassroots organizations with a social justice mission, culminating in the proposed Fairness and Equity Act.

“It fixes a lot of the things that got passed that didn’t make a lot of common sense,” said Chris McCreight, Director of Communications for New York State Assembly member Karim Camara, who cosponsored the Fairness and Equity Act. “There’s a lot of things [in the bill] that deal with oddities in current law. For example if you’re on the street corner smoking marijuana and you pass it to your friend, that’s considered a sale.”

The reason for that is due to a loophole in the Marijuana Reform Act of 1977, which — despite decriminalizing level-five marijuana possession for first-time offenders — made public and out-of-pocket possession a misdemeanor. New York City’s notorious stop-and-frisk program was designed to exploit this very loophole by giving police the authority to stop people, ask them to empty their pockets, and make an arrest if any marijuana is revealed. This has led to a rate of arrests for marijuana possession that is nine times higher for black people in Brooklyn and Manhattan than for white people in the same boroughs. Statewide, black people are 4.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people.

Unlike the Marijuana Reform Act of 1977 — which was only concerned with decreasing arrests, and did a poor job of it, no less — the Fairness and Equity Act is explicitly aimed at contending with issues of race equity. “We want to make sure to address some of the extreme collateral consequences — people getting deported, people losing custody of their kids, people getting kicked out of public housing,” said Alyssa Aguilera, Political Director at VOCAL-NY.

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