LOWER MANHATTAN — In the last four years, using or possessing marijuana in relatively small quantities has become a lower level crime in New York City and in many of its surrounding suburbs.
For people who were prosecuted before this change, however, it’s still on their records, causing problems and challenges for them, even while people committing the same infractions now face few consequences.
Activists and legislators are trying to change the situation, but doing so may still take more time than some wish it did.
A man who personifies the problem is Jordan.
PIX11 News is using a pseudonym for him, by his request, because a past marijuana arrest still affects his record.
I’m “having to mess up my life for all this. That’s it,” Jordan said.
Eighteen years ago, he’d just left work with two colleagues, when, he says, “We were stopped by two police officers. They started to search us, [and] they found a bag of marijuana on each of the other two suspects.”
“They searched me after they finished with the other two,” Jordan said. “But they didn’t find anything.”
Still, he said, “they took us [all] in. I was there in a cell.”
Jordan’s record shows that he was arrested for marijuana possession that evening in 2000, even though, according to him and his attorney, he didn’t possess any. Jordan’s anger over what he claims was a false arrest, for an infraction that would not get him arrested now, caused the situation to snowball.
“You know you didn’t do something, you say, ‘Hell with it. Let later on be later on,'” he said.
He did not show up for his arraignment because he “was very angry” with the initial arrest, which was under false pretenses, Jordan and his attorney insist.
“A simple arrest is something that remains in somebody’s life forever,” Legal Aid Society attorney Anthony Posada, who represents Jordan now, said. “It goes on and on.”
Because Jordan hadn’t shown up at his arraignment more than a decade-and-a-half ago, a warrant was put out for his arrest. The then-homeless, mentally ill man subsequently had police encounters which, in conjunction with his arrest warrant, got him put in jail over and over again.
“Low level offenses” are what he’d had, Posada said, such as “[being in the] park after hours [or] taking up two seats on the subway.”
They’re offenses that would just Jordan ticketed now, but back then it got him sent back to jail — on-again, off-again for eight years, for an initial infraction that he and his lawyer are adamant that he didn’t even commit, and which is still on his record.
Jordan’s case is by no means isolated, said his attorney, who also maintains that even though some city practices have changed, a larger problem remains.
“In 2017,” said Posada, “you had 18,000 people arrested on this charge [of low-level marijuana possession or use], the vast majority of which were black and brown New Yorkers.”
Posada was speaking from experience.
In 2003, he had an encounter with officers in Jackson Heights, Queens, that’s influenced him to this day.
“They throw me up against the wall,” he told PIX11 News about the incident, “and start shouting, ‘Where are the drugs? Where are the drugs?'”
Such an incident , involving a concealed quantity of marijuana, would most likely not happen now. Still, though, it remains on Posada’s record. It inspired him to become a Legal Aid attorney in order to fight unlawful arrests like his, he said.
He’s now the head of the community justice unit at the Legal Aid Society, and is part of a growing movement that says it wants justice on past drug crimes.
David Holland is also part of that movement.
“Sixty-two percent of the population has now expressed it wants legalization across the board,” said Holland, citing a variety of recent polls.
Holland is the executive director and legal director of the New York chapter of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, or NORML.
NORML, in turn, Holland said, is a major backer of another acronym.
“There’s the MRTA,” Holland said, “the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, that has passed through the [New York State] Assembly, but we’re waiting on the Senate to vote on that now.”
If MRTA were to pass the full state legislature, it would do something in New York, statewide, that so far has only happened in a few West Coast cities: San Francisco, San Diego and Seattle. It would remove past low-level marijuana offenses from the records of people who’d been convicted of them.
It’s needed here, according to the Legal Aid attorney.
“Do away with these convictions, with this way of thinking. Expunge. Get rid of,” Posada said. “Let’s recognize this was wrong from the beginning and just clear away with it.”
His client, Jordan, strongly agrees. He said that expunging his drug conviction from his record would be a radical change for the better.
“I would like those charges to wipe away,” he said, “and give me a fresh new start.”
As the legislative session in Albany gets back underway the last week of February, a lot is happening on this issue.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo has proposed that New York State fund a study on legalizing marijuana, and the potential number of votes for MRTA appears to be higher than ever.
The measure has been voted on in New York legislative sessions dating back to 2013.