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Op-Ed: NYPD’s Change in Policy is an Improvement, but Let’s Hope it Ends ‘Marijuana Crusade’ (NY Daily News)

By Donna Lieberman

Nearly 40 years ago, New York State made possession of small amounts of marijuana a violation – like speeding or ignoring a stop light. But year after year, marijuana possession has remained the top reason the NYPD arrests New Yorkers.

Every aspect of a person’s life can be impacted by a marijuana arrest, including eligibility for public housing and student financial aid, job opportunities, child custody and even immigration status.

So the de Blasio administration is on the right track by promising to ensure that the consequences of some marijuana arrests soon won’t include handcuffs and a night in jail. That’s a step. But it doesn’t solve the problem. It just raises new questions.

New Yorkers need to know if the NYPD is finally ending its marijuana crusade or if it is simply shifting its tactics to mitigate the harm. A trip to summons court is way better than a night in jail, but it carries its own consequences, including mandatory court fees, fines, costly legal services, and court appearances that require time away from work and school.

Worse yet, a missed court appearance or failure to pay a fine means an arrest warrant.

Who will pay the price? Every year, around 85 percent of marijuana arrests are of black and Latino New Yorkers. But because the Police Department does not collect even modest information on the race and ethnicity of New Yorkers who receive summonses, does this mean that we soon won’t know who the cops are targeting for weed?

The racially-lopsided arrest data – on top of the sheer volume of arrests – is likely what shocked the de Blasio administration into adopting these reforms. Replacing transparency with a marijuana policy that we’re told is kinder and gentler but that is shielded from public scrutiny is dangerous. No matter how well intentioned the reforms are, if there’s no reduction in enforcement and no one is allowed to watch to see who is impacted, any progress from the new policy could be a pipe dream.

Donna Lieberman is executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union.

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