End the war on pot

New York Daily News - - EDITORIAL -

Af­ter many decades of treat­ing as a crime the per­sonal possession and use of a drug that is a neg­li­gi­ble threat to pub­lic safety, New York is awak­en­ing to the folly of — and racial dis­par­i­ties widened by — its ap­proach. We are part of this awak­en­ing, which is why we wel­come the push to le­gal­ize and reg­u­late marijuana. By ev­ery hon­est mea­sure, the sub­stance has more in com­mon with al­co­hol and tobacco than it does harder drugs that are rightly il­le­gal.

Which is not to say we en­dorse va­p­ing or tok­ing, or that gov­ern­ment should. Le­gal­iza­tion can co­ex­ist with stigma­ti­za­tion, es­pe­cially for young peo­ple, for whom drug use and abuse is dis­as­trous.

But con­tin­u­ing to turn the puni­tive gears of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem against 50 peo­ple per day in the five bor­oughs for so much as touch­ing a drug that count­less adults use harm­lessly in the pri­vacy of their own homes does not serve New York.

It wasn’t sup­posed to be this way. In 1977, New York de­crim­i­nal­ized possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana, mak­ing it an in­frac­tion with a $100 fine.

In the in­ter­ven­ing 40 years, hun­dreds of thou­sands of peo­ple have been ar­rested. Po­lice in the five bor­oughs con­tinue to make some 17,000 ar­rests an­nu­ally for pot possession. Though that’s down 40% since 2013, due in large part to a rise in crim­i­nal sum­monses, it’s still high.

And de­spite the fact that re­search shows marijuana is used in about equal num­bers by whites, blacks and Lati­nos, blacks and Lati­nos make up 86% of ar­restees. Those two groups ac­count for just 51% of the city’s over­all pop­u­la­tion. Even the NYPD’s chief of crime con­trol strate­gies has said this gulf “should be trou­bling to any­one.”

While it’s true that ar­rests are of­ten driven by calls to 311 and 911, anal­y­sis by the Daily News this year showed the as­so­ci­a­tion to be far weaker than the city claims.

The New York Times matched eth­ni­cally dif­fer­ent neigh­bor­hoods with al­most iden­ti­cal com­plaint lev­els — and found that the pre­dom­i­nantly white and Asian neigh­bor­hoods gen­er­ally saw or­ders of mag­ni­tude fewer ar­rests than the pre­dom­i­nantly black and Latino ones.

This stub­born racial en­force­ment dis­par­ity points to a fun­da­men­tal ques­tion: why it makes sense to treat marijuana use as a nail to be hit with the ham­mer of cuffs, cops and courts, sad­dling in­di­vid­u­als with ar­rest records and some­times, though in­fre­quently, jail time for par­tak­ing.

In­deed, New York al­ready per­mits med­i­cal marijuana, an ac­knowl­edge­ment that un­der care­ful con­trols, the drug can have ther­a­peu­tic ben­e­fits.

Nine U.S. states, in­clud­ing Colorado, Mas­sachusetts, Cal­i­for­nia and Alaska, have fully le­gal­ized marijuana for recre­ational use. New Jer­sey is lean­ing strongly in the same direc­tion.

Where the drug has been le­gal­ized, fears that tak­ing sales out of the black mar­ket and into the open would lead to a surge in vi­o­lent crime and drug use have not ma­te­ri­al­ized.

There are trends worth wor­ry­ing about, and learn­ing from, such as an ap­par­ent rise in pot-re­lated DWIs. But the sky has not fallen, or even no­tice­ably dark­ened, any­where that marijuana has gone from be­ing a crim­i­nally for­bid­den sub­stance to a taxed and reg­u­lated one.

By the same to­ken, it is cru­cial to make clear that le­gal­iza­tion ad­vo­cates over­sell their prod­uct with the sug­ges­tion it will elim­i­nate stub­born polic­ing dis­par­i­ties.

No state that al­lows small amounts of marijuana to be sold and held for per­sonal use per­mits pub­lic smok­ing, which re­mains any­thing from a non­crim­i­nal ticket to a crim­i­nal mis­de­meanor.

In other words, it is prop­erly an of­fense to be en­forced, and that en­force­ment may prove racially dis­parate, fol­low­ing dif­fer­ences in be­hav­ior. So too would black-mar­ket sales re­main against the law.

One al­ter­na­tive to le­gal­iza­tion is de­crim­i­nal­iza­tion. Man­hat­tan DA Cy Vance and Bronx DA Eric Gon­za­lez call for de­clin­ing to pros­e­cute pot possession while keep­ing it il­le­gal on the books. While tempt­ing, this could cre­ate a patch­work of en­force­ment whereby the same of­fense is treated rad­i­cally dif­fer­ently across New York ju­ris­dic­tions.

We’ve gained lit­tle, and lost plenty, in wag­ing this mis­be­got­ten war. It’s time to try an­other way.

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