Ethan Nadelmann of the Drug Policy Alliance Responds to the Big NYPD Marijuana News


Update below: The NYPD responds to one of Nadelmann’s concerns about Kelly’s memo.

Ethan Nadelmann is the founder and Executive Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. Interviews with DPA staff and data from DPA reports were used through out this week’s Voice feature, “White Mayor’s Burden.”

We spoke with Nadelmann after the stunning news from WNYC that the NYPD has suddenly reversed course and announced that it will (conditionally, anyway) follow the law and stop arresting New Yorkers for low level marijuana possession that is not in public view.

The Voice: How did you find out about Kelly’s order?

Ethan Nadelmann: Personally, I was sitting in my office, and a half dozen of my colleagues walked in and said, “Did we just win?”

And someone sent me the WNYC story, and then someone walked in with it printed out.

You didn’t get any kind of heads up?

No. It was WNYC’s Ailsa Chang that got everyone’s attention.

What was your first impression, when you read the actual order?

At first, I was suspicious. Is this really what it says it is? And when I read it closely, it looks like it really is a change in policy. That Kelly is telling the police to stop arresting people when marijuana pops up in somebody’s pocket in a search. And that’s a big change. That’s a violation, but it is not something for which they can be arrested and finger printed. The order specifically mentions fingerprinting.

What about this language your colleague was telling me about, the words “requested” versus “compelled.” Are there any loopholes here?

That is was I was looking to see. Are they trying to protect themselves somehow? At the beginning, the key line is paragraph two, sentence two:

A crime will not be charged to an individual who is requested or compelled to engage in the behavior that results in the public display of marihuana.

He didn’t just say compelled, he also says requested, and that seems that it will cover a large number of the stops police are making, in which they get a young person to take out what is in their pockets.

I also looked closely at Paragraph 3:

To support a charge of PL 221.10 (1) the public display of marihuana must be an activity undertaken of the subject’s own volition. Thus, uniformed members of the service lawfully exercising their police powers during a stop may not charge the individual with PL 22l.10(l) CPM if the marihuana recovered was disclosed to public view at an officer’s direction

That’s taking it pretty far. This is not finger printable and is only punishable by a fine. So these are some good key words.

Now, if I’m looking where Kelly might be hedging? The principal way in which he may be qualifying this order, or minimizing its reach, is that [the order uses the phrase] uniformed members. Uniformed members. And as I understand this, many of the arrests [for marijuana] are made by cops who are not in uniform. Will this affect arrest by uniformed officers only? Why is the order only addressing them and not plainclothes officers? This is not clear to me, if this has some internal meaning or not. [Update: The Voice posed this concern to the NYPD, who said that the order applies to “all police officers.”]

So what do you do now? Celebrate? Double down?

We still have our legislation in Albany. But in the moment, this is an exceptional victory. It’s evidence that collectively, activists and community leaders and academics and elected officals can really transform a policy. This is a campaign that has been won over a period of time. Virtually all the media has covered it. Even the New York Times has started covering it with sophistication. So it’s a very significant victory.

If one wants to analyze what this means politically, Bloomberg and Kelly have been increasingly defensive on the issue, and towards our success on this issue. To what extent Kelly is doing this in terms of his reported plans to run for mayor, and to remove this issue as a sensitive one in minority communities, I don’t know. I can only speculate.

As for Bloomberg, for us, in terms of drug policy across the board – Bloomberg has been relatively good and progressive on dealing with the public health aspects. His first health commissioner early on moved in to Queens and told them they needed to have a needle exchange program as well. Bloomberg has been pretty good with needle exchange issues, overdose prevention. The Health Department has a director of harm reduction, and they appointed an exceptional person to that position. And, I mean, the Johns Hopkins School of the Public Health is the Bloomberg School of Public Health!

But paradoxically, on law enforcement, Bloomberg has been quite different. He was critical on the reform of the Rockefeller drug laws. He was absent on that.

And on marijuana arrests, he’s been abysmal – until today, until this week.

The White Mayor’s Burden
Ray Kelly Finally Does the Right Thing with Weed Arrests
Crime Higher in Neighborhoods Without Marijuana Dispensaries, RAND Corporation Finds
Michael Bloomberg’s Young Men’s Initiative: the Full Report