Starting Wednesday, people who use or possess marijuana in Manhattan will not face prosecution.
District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. laid out the policy change in a press release Tuesday, announcing his office’s intent to reduce cannabis prosecutions by 96 percent annually in the New York City borough.
“Every day I ask our prosecutors to keep Manhattan safe and make our justice system more equal and fair,” Vance said. “The needless criminalization of pot smoking frustrates this core mission, so we are removing ourselves from the equation.”
“Our research has found virtually no public safety rationale for the ongoing arrest and prosecution of marijuana smoking, and no moral justification for the intolerable racial disparities that underlie enforcement. Tomorrow, our Office will exit a system wherein smoking a joint can ruin your job, your college application, or your immigration status, but our advocacy will continue. I urge New York lawmakers to legalize and regulate marijuana once and for all.”
The “decline to prosecute” policy was distributed to Manhattan district attorneys and the New York Police Department last week, according to the press release.
Our research has found virtually no public safety rationale for prosecuting these cases, and no justification for the underlying racial disparities. pic.twitter.com/wXDxOr3MAf
— Cyrus Vance, Jr. (@ManhattanDA) July 31, 2018
Vance, whose office previously commissioned a report on the effect of legalization in jurisdictions that have enacted it, first announced the new non-prosecution policy in May, and is now putting it into effect.
The move represents yet another localized, marijuana reform effort in the Empire State, where the prospect of full legalization appears increasingly likely. Just last week, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez touted new numbers showing a dramatic reduction in marijuana prosecution cases from January to June 2018.
The Brooklyn District Attorney’s office reported that prosecutors accepted 91 percent fewer marijuana cases since the pilot program started.
Prosecuted cases are ⬇️ 91%
Cases that were declined prosecution are ⬆️ 70%
Arrests are ⬇️ 60%
— Eric Gonzalez (@BrooklynDA) July 27, 2018
“Aggressive enforcement and prosecution of personal possession and use of marijuana does not keep us safer, and the glaring racial disparities in who is and is not arrested have contributed to a sense among many in our communities that the system is unfair,” Gonzalez said. “This in turn contributes to a lack of trust in law enforcement, which makes us all less safe.”
“That is why, earlier this year, we expanded our existing non-prosecution policy to include smoking cases.”
Both the Manhattan and Brooklyn District Attorney offices stipulated that their “decline to prosecute” policies will not apply in cases where the suspect poses a threat to public health, among other exceptions.
The greening of New York is also evident in recent political developments. For example, the state’s Democratic Party adopted a pro-legalization stance during its May convention.
And as the gubernatorial race has heated up—with incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo facing harsh criticism from his progressive, pro-legalization contender Cynthia Nixon—his administration released a state Health Department report concluding that the pros of marijuana legalization outweigh the cons earlier this month.
The full text of Manhattan’s new policy is below:
Beginning on August, 1, 2018, the Office will no longer prosecute marijuana possession and smoking cases (PL § 221.10(1) and PL § 221.05). Assistant District Attorneys should use the new “DP-Marijuana” template in ACT6 to decline to prosecute an arrest. There are two limited exceptions to this policy. A prosecution may be appropriate in either of the following circumstances:
— Cases against sellers: Examples include observation sales where PL § 221.40 cannot be charged, or possession of large quantities of marijuana individually packaged for sale (10 bags or more).
— Demonstrated public safety threat: A case where there is additional information from the NYPD or from our Office which demonstrates that the individual otherwise poses a significant threat to public safety, and an Office supervisor agrees with that assessment. Examples include a defendant currently under active investigation for a violent offense or other serious crime.
Assistant District Attorneys must state on the record at arraignment that ‘the case falls within one of the limited exceptions to our marijuana policy.
UN Committee Unexpectedly Withholds Marijuana Scheduling Recommendations
On Friday, the World Health Organization (WHO) was expected to make recommendations about the international legal status of marijuana, which reform advocates hoped would include a call to deschedule the plant and free up member countries to pursue legalization.
But in a surprise twist, a representative from the organization announced that WHO, a specialized agency of the United Nations, would be temporarily withholding the results of its cannabis assessment, even as it released recommendations on an opioid painkiller and synthetic cannabinoids. The marijuana recommendations are now expected to come out in January.
Earlier this year, the WHO Expert Committee on Drug Dependence (ECDD) released a pre-review of marijuana that included several positive, evidentiary findings. Cannabis has never caused a fatal overdose, the committee said, and research demonstrates that ingredients in the plant can effectively treat pain and improve sleep, for example.
The pre-review results prompted a more in-depth critical review, one of the final stages before the UN’s Commission on Narcotic Drugs (CND) makes a determination about whether marijuana should remain in the most restrictive international drug classification. But on Friday, as observers anxiously awaited that determination, WHO pumped the brakes. The committee said it needed more time “for clearance reasons,” according to the International Drug Policy Consortium.
The @WHO's Expert Committee on Drug Dependence met in November to discuss the scheduling of cannabis and related/other substances.
— IDPC (@IDPCnet) December 7, 2018
“This decision to withhold the results of the critical review of cannabis appears to be politically motivated,” Michael Krawitz, a U.S. Air Force veteran and legalization advocate who has pushed for international reform, said in a press release.
“The WHO has been answering many questions about cannabis legalization, which is not within their mandate. I hope the WHO shows courage and stands behind their work on cannabis, findings we expect to be positive based upon recent WHO statements and their other actions today.”
Those other actions include recommending that the opioid painkiller tramadol should not be scheduled under international treaties out of concern that such restrictions would limit access and hurt patients. In August, the committee made a similar recommendation about pure cannabidiol, or CBD, a component of marijuana.
While the critical review of marijuana itself has been postponed, the committee’s recommendations for its international scheduling are still expected to go up for a vote in the CND in March. If the committee does decide to recommend that cannabis be removed from international control, that would have wide-ranging implications for the reform efforts around the world.
In the U.S., the federal government has routinely cited obligations under international treaties to which it is a party as reasons to continue to ban marijuana and its derivatives. For instance, the Food and Drug Administration said in May that CBD doesn’t meet the criteria for federal scheduling at all, but that international treaties obliged it to recommend rescheduling to Schedule V.
“If treaty obligations do not require control of CBD, or if the international controls on CBD change in the future, this recommendation will need to be promptly revisited,” the agency said.
Where Trump’s Pick For Attorney General Stands On Drug Policy
President Donald Trump said on Friday that he plans to nominate William Barr to replace Jeff Sessions as U.S. attorney general.
Barr, who previously served in the position under President George H. W. Bush’s administration, seems less openly hostile to marijuana compared to other potential nominees whose names were floated—like New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie (R), who pledged to crack down on state-legal cannabis activity during his failed 2016 presidential bid.
That said, he developed a reputation as anti-drug while overseeing harsh enforcement policies under Bush.
….and one of the most highly respected lawyers and legal minds in the Country, he will be a great addition to our team. I look forward to having him join our very successful Administration!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) December 7, 2018
The prospective nominee seems to share a worldview with the late president under whom he served. Bush called for “more prisons, more jails, more courts, more prosecutors” to combat drug use and dramatically increased the federal drug control budget to accomplish that goal. In 1992, Barr sanctioned a report that made the “case for more incarceration” as a means to reduce violent crime.
Barr wrote a letter explaining why he was releasing the report, which has now resurfaced as observers attempt to gauge how he will approach drug policy in the 21st century.
“[T]here is no better way to reduce crime than to identify, target, and incapacitate those hardened criminals who commit staggering numbers of violent crimes whenever they are on the streets,” he wrote. “Of course, we cannot incapacitate these criminals unless we build sufficient prison and jail space to house them.”
“Revolving-door justice resulting from inadequate prison and jail space breeds disrespect for the law and places our citizens at risk, unnecessarily, of becoming victims of violent crime.”
He also wrote a letter to lawmakers in 2015 defending the criminal justice system—including mandatory minimum sentences—and encouraging Congress not to bring up a sentencing reform bill.
“It’s hard to imagine an Attorney General as bad as Jeff Sessions when it comes to criminal justice and the drug war, but Trump seems to have found one,” Michael Collins, director of national drug affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a press release. “Nominating Barr totally undermines Trump’s recent endorsement of sentencing reform.”
“The vast majority of Americans believe the war on drugs needs to be replaced with a health-centered approach. It is critically important that the next Attorney General be committed to defending basic rights and moving away from failed drug war policies. William Barr is a disastrous choice.”
Another window into Barr’s criminal justice perspective comes from 1989, when he wrote a Justice Department memo that authorized the FBI to apprehend suspected fugitives living in other countries and extradite them to the U.S. without first getting permission from the country. The intent of the memo seemed to be to enable the U.S. to more easily capture international drug traffickers.
In 2002, Barr compared drug trafficking to terrorism and described the drug war as the “biggest frustration” he faced under Bush. The administration “did a very good job putting in place the building blocks for intelligence building and international cooperation, but we never tightened the noose,” he said.
Interestingly, as The Washington Post reported, Barr would be heading up a department where his daughter, Mary Daly, also works. Daly is the director of opioid enforcement and prevention efforts in the deputy attorney general’s office, and she’s established herself as an advocate for tougher criminal enforcement aimed at driving out the opioid epidemic.
Today’s drug policy landscape is a lot different than it was in the early 1990s, though, and it’s yet to be seen how Barr, if confirmed by the Senate, will navigate conflicting state and federal marijuana laws. He’ll also be inheriting a Justice Department that no longer operates under an Obama-era policy of general non-intervention, after Sessions moved this year to rescind the so-called Cole memo that provided guidance on federal cannabis enforcement.
But for advocates, at least it’s not the guy who said “good people don’t smoke marijuana” anymore and it won’t be one who campaigned for president saying he’d enforce federal prohibition in legal states, either.
Marijuana Bills Are Already Being Pre-Filed For 2019 Legislative Sessions
If you thought 2018 was a big year for marijuana, gear up for 2019. Before the next legislative session has even started, lawmakers in at least four states have already pre-filed a wide range of cannabis reform bills.
In Missouri, where voters approved a medical marijuana initiative during last month’s midterm election, a state lawmaker has already drafted a piece of legislation that would legalize cannabis for adult-use—though it would not establish a retail sales system. Instead, adults 21 and older would be allowed to possess up to two ounces of marijuana and grow up to six plants.
At least one marijuana decriminalization bill will be on the table in Virginia next year. The legislation would reduce the penalty for simple possession from a misdemeanor offense punishable by a maximum of a $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail to a civil penalty punishable by a $50 fine for first-time offenders, $100 for second-time offenders and $250 for subsequent offenses.
Marijuana Moment is currently tracking more than 900 cannabis bills in state legislatures and Congress. Patreon supporters pledging at least $25/month get access to our interactive maps, charts and hearing calendar so they don’t miss any developments.
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Down in Texas, lawmakers in the state House and Senate have already pre-filed no fewer than 12 marijuana-related bills. The legislative proposals range from constitutional amendments to fully legalize and regulate cannabis to simple decriminalization policies to lessen penalties for low-level possession.
Finally, in Nevada, where cannabis is legal for adults, lawmakers have introduced a flurry of what are called “bill draft requests” that relate to marijuana. Proposals to revise cannabis tax policies, create a state bank that could potentially service the legal industry and regulate hemp cultivation—among several others—could be taken up by the state legislature next year.
While the pre-filing process has already started in most states, there’s still time and it’s possible that more cannabis legislation will be introduced for consideration in coming days and weeks prior to the formal start of 2019 legislative sessions.