BY TRONE DOWD
Queens lawmakers sent a letter to Queens District Attorney Richard Brown on Monday to call for the end of prosecuting low-level marijuana offenses in the borough.
“We are witnessing a sea change in the public’s perspective on marijuana use,” the letter states in its opening remarks. “The debate among New Yorkers that was once constrained to whether medical marijuana should be legal in our state has since morphed into a reexamination of the personal and public safety risks posed by its recreational use, if not full legalization.”
All of the elected officials who signed the two-page letter represent primarily black and Latino neighborhoods where constituents have been disproportionately affected by marijuana related arrests. The letter’s authors included Council members I. Daneek Miller (D-St. Albans), Adrienne Adams (D-Jamaica), Donovan Richards (D-Laurelton), Rory Lancman (D-Hillcrest) and Francisco Moya (D-Jackson Heights); Assembly members Clyde Vanel (D-Queens Village) and Alicia Hyndman (D-Springfield Gardens); state Sen. Leroy Comrie (D-St. Albans); and U.S. Rep. Gregory Meeks (D-Jamaica).
In 2017, more than 17,000 people were arrested for low-level marijuana-related offenses in New York City. Of those arrested, 14,530 were people of color.
“Among that population, 48 percent were black and 38 percent were Hispanic,” the letter states. “These inequities are particularly glaring in the New York Police Department’s 105th Precinct, where the number of marijuana summonses issued in the neighborhoods of Queens Village, Cambria Heights, Laurelton, Rosedale and Springfield Gardens has led the city nearly every year for over a decade.”
In addition to the 105th, elected officials said that Southeast Queens’ 103rd and 113th Precincts saw some of the highest rates of marijuana related arrests between 2014 and 2016.
These figures are likely to drop off in the future, with Mayor Bill de Blasio’s announcement on Tuesday that he is recommending the NYPD no longer make these arrests. Instead, he is calling for individuals caught smoking in public to be given summonses. Currently, the NYPD is conducting a 30-day review of how to move forward with the recommendation before putting it into effect.
But while Brown’s counterparts—Manhattan DA Cyrus Vance and Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez—have been supportive of the mayor’s move, Brown has been more resistant. In his response to Monday’s letter, Brown pointed out that there are few people in the borough’s criminal system who end up there as a result of a marijuana related arrest.
“We did our own preliminary study, which revealed that from May 1, 2017, to April 30, 2018, 75 percent of the 2,094 defendants arrested in Queens for public smoking of marijuana were issued desk appearance tickets and were not held in custody awaiting arraignment,” Brown said. “Of those, 21 percent failed to appear on the scheduled court dates and warrants were issued for their arrest. Beyond that, of the 2,507 public smoking of marijuana cases disposed of during that period, 69 percent ended in an adjournment in contemplation of dismissal. Of the cases that resulted in any kind of conviction, only 2.4 percent resulted in a conviction of a crime as opposed to a violation. Thus, over 97 percent of the public smoking cases did not result in a criminal conviction.”
The DA also pointed out that while more than 20 states have legalized the substance in some form, all of them have banned public use of it, creating a precedent nationwide from which he believes the Empire State shouldn’t stray.
Miller, who is co-chairman of the council’s Black, Latino and Asian Caucus, told the Queens Tribune that he was disappointed by the DA’s response, calling it “cold.”
“Rather than seize the initiative during this moment by revamping his policy on marijuana prosecutions, he has opted to preserve the status quo and enable the racially biased policing of petty marijuana offenses to continue unabated,” Miller said. “A one-year sample of such prosecutions does not come close to measuring the full impact of summonses and arrests in the borough, nor does it account for the overlooked hardships court proceedings create for workers, students, immigrants, prospective homeowners and job seekers.”