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New York is THIS Close To Legalizing Medical Weed, But NYC is Still the Pot Arrest Capital of the U.S.

Congressman Hakeem Jeffries.
Congressman Hakeem Jeffries.
Tessa Stuart

On Tuesday the New York State Assembly passed, for the fifth time since it was introduced in 1997, the Compassionate Care Act. The bill would legalize medical marijuana in New York state, allowing sick New Yorkers relief from symptoms associated with cancer treatment, MS, epilepsy, and other ailments. With that vote, New York comes one step closer to joining the 21 others states and the District of Columbia where marijuana is legal in some form.

The same day, in downtown New York, demonstrators in front of One Police Plaza called attention to the fact that, despite progress in Albany, New York City remains the marijuana arrest capital of the United States.

Congressman Hakeem Jeffries gathered with representatives from the Drug Policy Alliance, Human Rights Watch, and Vocal New York beside a large graph showing that despite promises Mayor Bill de Blasio made during his campaign, arrests for simple possession have not dropped in any significant way since he took office.

In fact, advocates say not only are marijuana arrests are up in March and April compared with last year, the city is still on pace to make the same number of possession arrests this year, and, most alarmingly, those arrests are still overwhelmingly concentrated in black and hispanic communities (comprising 87% of arrests in the first quarter of 2014).

New York state decriminalized marijuana possession in the 1977, but, Jeffries said Tuesday, simple possession arrests have persisted because of a loophole: an arrest can still be made if the pot was in public view. "The police have been approaching individuals, asking them to empty their pockets, show us everything they have. If someone happens to have small quantities of marijuana in their pockets, something that was not criminal behavior, as a result of the police interaction is then turned into a misdemeanor."  

"These marijuana arrests are human rights violations. These are violations of the right to autonomy and the right to privacy," Brian Root of Human Rights Watch said on Tuesday. His organization followed almost 30,000 people arrested in 2003 and 2004 for eight years, and found only 3 percent were later convicted of a violent crime.

Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance said the city not only needs to end simple possession arrests entirely, it needs to reflect on the impact these arrests have had on the city's residents. "If we say these arrests need to end--as Mayor de Blasio said when he ran--then we need to begin asking questions. What do we do about the fact that we know that hundreds of thousands of people were unlawfully arrested. What are we going to do for those people who have a permanent arrest record that will follow them around for the rest of their lives?"

It's a question that will be asked again if New York legalizes, as it appears poised to do, marijuana for medicinal uses. The Compassionate Care Act still needs to go before New York State Senate's finance committee before it faces its final test--a full vote on the senate floor.

Finance committee chair, John DeFrancisco, told the Syracuse Post-Standard he wants to raise the bill in his committee, he's just waiting on the senate leadership's go ahead. "If the two leaders want it on the agenda, it will go on the agenda," DeFrancisco said. Senate co-leaders Jeff Klein (a co-sponsor of the bill) and Dean Skelos only have until June 19, when the legislative session ends, to bring the bill up.

Send story tips to the author, Tessa Stuart


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