Arresting and prosecuting low level marijuana offenders in New York City has little or no impact on law enforcement efforts to reduce violent crime, according to a study released today by Human Rights Watch, an international advocacy organization that focuses on human rights violations worldwide.
The study’s authors reviewed data from the New York Department of Criminal Justice Services to track the criminal records of nearly 30,000 people who had no prior convictions when they were arrested for marijuana possession in public view [NY State Penal Law 221.10] in 2003 and 2004. Researchers assessed whether those arrested for minor marijuana violations engaged in additional, more serious criminal activity in the years following their arrest.
They reported: “[W]e found that 3.1 percent of [marijuana arrestees] were subsequently convicted of one violent felony offense during the six-and-a-half to eight-and-a-half years that our research covers; 0.4 percent had two or more violent felony convictions. That is, 1,022 persons out of the nearly 30,000 we tracked had subsequent violent felony convictions. Ninety percent (26,315) had no subsequent felony convictions of any kind.”
New York City police arrest more people for possessing small amounts of marijuana in public view than for any other offense, the study found. Between 1996 and 2011, police made more than half-a-million (586,320) arrests for this misdemeanor, including a total of around 100,000 in just the 2 years of 2010 and 2011. Of those arrested, the overwhelming majority are either Black or Latino and under 25 years of age.
Investigators concluded: “[T]he rate of felony and violent felony conviction among this group of first-time marijuana arrestees appears to be lower than the rate of felony conviction for the national population, taking into account age, gender, and race. … Neither our findings nor those of other researchers indicate the arrests are an efficient or fair means for identifying future dangerous felons.”
Under New York state law, the private possession of up to 25 grams of marijuana is a non-criminal civil citation, punishable by a $100 fine. By contrast, the possession of any amount of cannabis in public view is a criminal misdemeanor.
In June, Democrat Gov. Andrew Cuomo urged lawmakers to close the ‘public view’ loophole. That effort was ultimately quashed by, Senate majority leader, Republican Dean Skelos, who argued, “Being able to just walk around with ten joints in each ear, and it only be a violation, I think that’s wrong.”
In October, Gov. Cuomo reiterated his support for amending the state’s marijuana laws. Speaking a the New York State Trooper Class of 2012 graduation ceremony, Cuomo said that he “would not consider” convening a special legislative session unless lawmakers were willing to consider reforms to reduce New York City’s skyrocketing marijuana arrest rates.
Beyond the obvious blessings of good health, being a member of loving families, living in a free country and pursuing one’s muse, on this Thanksgiving…I’m thankful for Zachariah Walker (a member of University of North Texas NORML) and his pro bono team of Texas lawyers from NORML’s Legal Committee.
In the wake of our recent elections, where voters in the states of Colorado and Washington have chosen to end cannabis prohibition, I’m thankful that Zack has the moxie in Denton, Texas to face down a possible six month prison sentence for the criminal charge of possessing two grams of cannabis. I’m thankful that when confronted with a plea bargain (which is how 90% or more of cannabis-related cases are legally dispatched from the criminal justice system), Zach just said no.
I’m thankful that NLC members David Sloane, Jamie Spencer and Jamie Balagia possess equal moxie and commitment to personal freedom by stepping into the breech by providing Zack with pro bono representation in challenging such a ridiculous waste of the local government’s resources and taxpayer dollars: Tens of thousands of tax dollars, in the middle of crushing recession and tight municipal budgets, to arrest, prosecute, pee test and incarcerate a young man for 180 days, who, should otherwise be working, spending money and therein adding taxes to society.
With over 750,000 annual cannabis-related arrests in America (approximately 90% for possession only), if more citizens charged with cannabis possession offenses regularly challenged their arrest and possible conviction, like the way Zach is in Texas, there is no doubt that the criminal justice system in many cities and counties across the country will come to a grinding halt—forcing both bureaucrats and elected officials to re-evaluate and likely support at a minimum cannabis ‘decriminalization’, possibly legalization.
With these crucially important changes of law and custom pending in Colorado and Washington regarding ending all criminal sanctions for adults who possess a little bit of ganja, citizens charged with minor cannabis-related offenses and their legal counsel from around the country can and now should challenge more and more of these petty cannabis charges—juxtaposing and educating judges and juries all along the way that in some parts of the country the ‘offense’ before them is not only no longer a crime in some states, the product is actually regulated and taxed.
How much longer will cannabis prohibition last in America?
Not much longer if we all demonstrate the moxie of Zach and his NLC legal team.
Prosecutors throughout Colorado and Washington state continue to dismiss hundreds of pending misdemeanor marijuana possession cases.
On Thursday, Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey and City Attorney Doug Friednash announced that they would stop pressing charges and would review pending criminal cases involving minor cannabis possession offenses. Their announcement came one day after Boulder County District Attorney Stan Garnett announced he would dismiss pending cases that involved less than an ounce of marijuana.
Fifty-five percent of Colorado voters on Election Day approved Amendment 64, which allows for the legal possession of up to one ounce of marijuana and/or the cultivation of up to six cannabis plants in private by those persons age 21 and over. The law will take effect the first week of January, 2013.
Prosecutors throughout Washington are also dismissing criminal charges against minor marijuana offenders. Most recently, prosecutors in Thurston County and Olympia announced that they would be dismissing all pending criminal cases involving the possession of one ounce or less of marijuana. Thurston County officials announced their decision shortly after receiving a request from the Thurston County chapter of NORML.
Thurston and Olympia County prosecutors join officials in several other Washington counties — including two of the state’s largest counties: King County and Pierce County — as well as Clark County and Spokane, all of which are have dismissed or are preparing to dismiss pending cannabis cases from the docket.
Washington state prosecutors’ actions follow voters’ passage of Initiative 502, which removes criminal penalties specific to the adult possession of up to one ounce of cannabis for personal use (as well as the possession of up to 16 ounces of marijuana-infused product in solid form, and 72 ounces of marijuana-infused product in liquid form.) The law is set to take effect on December 6, 2012.
Explaining his decision to drop hundreds of pending cannabis cases ahead of the enactment of the new law, King County Prosecutor Dan Satterberg told The Seattle Times: “Although the effective date of I-502 is not until December 6, there is no point in continuing to seek criminal penalties for conduct that will be legal next month. I think when the people voted to change the policy, they weren’t focused on when the effective date of the new policy would be. They spoke loudly and clearly that we should not treat small amounts of marijuana as an offense.”
Many wondered just what the exact effects of passing a marijuana legalization law would be. Some speculated no good would come of passing a state law while it is still in conflict with federal law. Now that we are a few weeks out from passing the two very first marijuana legalization measures in this country, we are beginning to have answers to these questions.
In addition to the legalization of personal possession (and cultivation of 6 plants in Colorado) that is set to go into effect on December 6th in Washington and no later than the first week of January in Colorado, we are beginning to see more positive benefits from the success of these two initiatives. Last week, two of the largest counties in Washington State, King and Pierce Counties, dismissed all pending marijuana possession cases. Clark County dismissed its cases in the days that followed. This week, Boulder County in Colorado dismissed all their pending cases and Spokane is preparing to dismiss many of theirs. It is likely that this trend will continue as we move forward and further counties in both states will also dismiss any of their pending marijuana possession cases.
So, what is the immediate result of the legalization votes on November 6th? Hundreds people will now avoid being tagged with permanent criminal records, will no longer have to appear in court and lose money and time defending themselves for a minor marijuana charge, will no longer have trouble finding employment because of a possession conviction on their record, and will no longer have to spend the mandatory 24 hours in jail that was mandated by Washington State law prior to the passage of I-502. These citizens are simply the first to benefit, there will now be tens of thousands of Americans in Colorado and Washington who won’t have to feel like criminals, pay fines, or serve jail time for the non-violent act of recreationally consuming cannabis.
And, by the way, the rest of the country is taking notice. If you haven’t heard, Rhode Island and Maine will be introducing legalization measures into their state legislatures today.
Just in from Denver 9news, more counties are stopping enforcement of marijuana possession in light of Amendment 64 and are considering dropping pending cases.
In Denver, Denver District Attorney Mitch Morrissey’s office confirmed they don’t anticipate any new charges will be filed for possession of less than an ounce of marijuana for anyone 21 and older, effective immediately. This is provided it is the only offense that would warrant a citation.
Additionally, the approximately 70 pending marijuana possession of less than on ounce cases in Denver will be individually reviewed to determine if charges will be dropped.
According to Denver District Attorney Office spokeswoman Lynn Kimbrough, if the possession charge is combined with other charges, the case will most likely not be dismissed.
In Grand Junction, police have already been told to stop issuing ounce-or-less marijuana tickets, according to police documents obtained by the Grand Junction Daily Sentinel.
Routt County District Attorney Brett Barkey says he plans to meet with senior staff members Thursday to decide whether to proceed with prosecuting petty marijuana cases that are pending in the courts.
Tuesday night, the states of Colorado and Washington sent a loud and clear message to the federal government that they no longer wish to enforce the futile prohibition on cannabis. The symbolic impact of these victories are immediate, but what are the practical effects on the ground now that these two initiatives have been approved?
In Washington State, regulations for the marijuana retail outlets are going to start being drafted by the Washington State Liquor Control Board. This process is expected to last about a year. The immediate impact of passing I-502 is on the state laws regarding possession. Starting on December 6th, Section 20 of the initiative will take effect. This section effectively states that any person over the age of 21 is legally allowed to possess up to 1oz of dried marijuana, 16oz of marijuana solids (edibles), and 72oz of cannabis infused liquids (think oils and lotions). It is also no longer a crime to possess marijuana paraphernalia.
Law enforcement representatives in the state have already released some statements on this matter. Sergeant Sean Whitcomb, from the Seattle Police Department, said, “For us, the law has changed, and people can expect no enforcement for possession.”
“What you can expect,” Sgt. Whitcomb clarified, “is no enforcement on possession, that is a reasonable expectation.”
The vote in Colorado is awaiting final certification, a process that is expected to take about a month. After this approval, it will immediately become legal in Colorado for adults over the age of 21 to possess up to an ounce of marijuana and for them to grow up to 6 plants in a secure indoor space.
The state is required to adopt a legal framework for retail sales by July of 2013, the first marijuana retail outlets could potentially open as early as the start of 2014.
Colorado’s law enforcement seems just as keen as Washington’s, for the time being, to honor the will of the people. “We’re not federal agents,” stated Larimer County Sheriff Justin Smith, who opposed Amendment 64 during the campaign.
“We can arrest people if they’re wanted on warrants on federal crimes, but unless we’re involved in a specific case … where (a deputy is) cross-commissioned as a federal agent,” he said, “we don’t directly enforce federal law.”
While he ended his statement with a patronizing jab, Colorado Governor Hickenlooper seems willing to abide by the desire of his state’s citizens on this issue. “The voters have spoken and we have to respect their will,” Hickenlooper said Tuesday night.
“This will be a complicated process, but we intend to follow through. That said,” he ended, “Federal law still says marijuana is an illegal drug, so don’t break out the Cheetos or gold fish too quickly.”
These protections in both states, when certified and placed into effect, will apply to anyone physically in the state, no residency required. Public consumption would remain a violation in both states, but a civil, not criminal, one.
As always, NORML will keep you posted as these laws become certified and come into effect and will be tracking the process of implementing retail outlets every step of the way.