Caught in NYC with marijuana? Consequences vary from borough to borough


NEW YORK — Caught in New York City with a doobie or a dime bag? The consequences you'll face vary from borough to borough.

Manhattan on Wednesday joined Brooklyn in declining to pursue most cases in which people are accused of smoking or possessing small amounts of pot in public. But those kinds of cases are still being tried in Staten Island, Queens and the Bronx, underscoring a stark divide among the city's five elected district attorneys.

As the city moves toward decriminalization and state leaders grapple with potential marijuana legalization, where you light up a joint in the Big Apple can be the difference between a criminal record and a slap on the wrist.

Chris Alexander, of the decriminalization advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance, said the lack of a uniform, citywide prosecution policy echoed the racial and economic disparities seen in marijuana-related arrests.

"We've long had a two-tiered system here," Alexander said.

Police officers in Manhattan will start issuing criminal summonses instead of making arrests for public marijuana smoking starting Sept. 1. People who are on parole or probation and have open warrants, have violent criminal histories or fail to show identification will still be arrested.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. estimated his office's new policy will cut marijuana cases in the borough from about 5,000 per year to fewer than 200 per year, about a 96 percent reduction.

Vance cited research showing "virtually no public safety rationale" for arresting and prosecuting pot smokers. He said he saw inherent unfairness in a system in which smoking a joint could cost someone a job, college admission and immigration status.

"We are removing ourselves from the equation," Vance said.

New York City set out to change its marijuana enforcement policy in May after The New York Times reported that blacks, who make up 24 percent of the city's population, were eight times more likely to be arrested on low-level marijuana charges than whites, who are 43 percent of its population.

Soon after, Vance and Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez said they would scale back marijuana-related prosecutions and police convened a group to study the policy with input from academics, community leaders and others.

Gonzalez said his office has already seen a drastic drop in marijuana-related cases sent to court, prosecuting only the most egregious offenses. In January, the office tried 349 marijuana cases. In June, it had declined all but 29.

Brooklyn prosecutors are still pursuing cases against people posing a threat to public safety, creating a nuisance such as smoking on a bus or subway train or involved in criminal activity. Manhattan prosecutors say they'll also take on cases against people posing a public safety threat and marijuana sellers.

Kevin Sabet, the president of the anti-legalization organization Smart Approaches to Marijuana, said the declined-prosecution policies prove "we can change laws and practices without commercializing another Big Tobacco advertising pot gummies to our kids."