As the push to legalize recreational marijuana gains traction in New York, with help from Gov. Andrew Cuomo, several prosecutors throughout the state have announced that they'll no longer prosecute low-level marijuana possession cases. Things like smoking or burning marijuana in public are now considered violations instead of misdemeanors. That means they won't give someone a criminal record that can impact their chances of getting a job or housing.
However, these changes haven't stopped state and local police from arresting people -- some more than others -- on these charges. In Westchester County, 163 people were arrested in the first quarter of this year, even though the DA announced the changes in his office in mid-January. Most of those arrested were black or Hispanic, and most of the arrests were in Yonkers.
The Westchester DA says, "I have no control over the local police departments…. I can only control what we're prosecuting." He added, "For it to apply statewide and broadly, we need state laws and need to have that addressed by way of the state legislature,"
Meanwhile, a spokesperson for the New York State Police says, "State Troopers are sworn to enforce the law, they cannot pick and choose which ones to enforce," A Yonkers police spokesperson says, "We send the police based on where we get the calls the most. That's where the enforcement takes place."
However, people of color have long been arrested for these low-level marijuana offenses at a considerably higher rate throughout the state than white people -- 10 times as great according to data from 2008 to 2018. In the first quarter of this year, only 460 of the 2,500 people arrested for marijuana-related offenses throughout the state were white.
This seemingly biased enforcement of the law isn't limited to New York. In Colorado, where recreational marijuana has been legal since 2012, the arrest rate for marijuana-related crimes in 2017 was almost twice as high for African Americans as for white people -- and about 84 percent of the state's population is white.
It can be confusing when police and prosecutors have different perspectives on the enforcement of certain laws. As long as a law is on the books, it's wise to assume that you can be arrested if you're suspected of violating it -- regardless of your race or ethnicity. An experienced criminal defense attorney can be a valuable resource if that happens.