NEW YORK — New York City’s pledge to stop making so many marijuana arrests is playing out on the streets, where arrests and summonses for small-time pot possession have plummeted since the policy change this fall.
After a mid-November turn toward violations and summonses instead of misdemeanor arrests for carrying modest amounts of pot, such arrests plunged by 75 percent in December compared to the year before, from about 1,820 to 460, according to state Division of Criminal Justice Services statistics obtained by The Associated Press. The November numbers fell 42 percent, from 2,200 to 1,280.
Even summonses have fallen by about 10 percent since the policy change, to 1,180, compared to the same period a year ago, New York Police Department figures show.
“Since the inception of our policy in 2014, marijuana enforcement activity is trending down in all categories” for the bottom-rung marijuana charge, Deputy Chief Kim Royster told the AP.
Critics who decried the once-spiking arrests see the decline as promising. But they say it’s too early to draw lasting conclusions, especially since low-level arrests and summonses of all kinds plummeted for a few weeks after the deadly shootings of two officers Dec. 20.
“Clearly, progress is being made,” but it needs to continue and deepen, said Gabriel Sayegh, the Drug Policy Alliance’s New York state director.
The plunge in arrests caps dramatic shifts in recent years in how the nation’s biggest city polices small amounts of pot.
Arrests for the lowest-level marijuana charge — possession of less than 25 grams, about a sandwich bag full — shot up from about 5,700 in 1995 to 50,700 in 2011, spurring criticism of police tactics and priorities. Then the arrests started declining notably amid public pressure and some police instruction and procedural changes, hitting about 29,000 in 2013.
They were keeping pace this year until November, when de Blasio and Police Commissioner William Bratton announced the new direction. With the sharp fall-off in the last two months, there were about 26,400 marijuana arrests in 2014, down about 9 percent from 2013, the state statistics show.
State law makes it a misdemeanor to have up to 25 grams of marijuana in “public view.” But the mayor said the city was choosing to treat that largely as a non-criminal violation — meaning a summons rather than an arrest, and a potential $100-plus fine instead of a possible three months in jail and a criminal record. (Under a 1977 state law, carrying the same amount of pot out of sight was already a violation, not a misdemeanor.)
Arrests were to continue in some cases, such as when people are allegedly seen smoking the drug in public.
“The law is a law, but what we’re trying to do is approach the enforcement of the law in a smarter way,” de Blasio said in November. Noting that the cases often get dismissed, he said the change would spare police time for more serious matters and spare people arrest records, which can affect public housing eligibility and some other aspects of life even without a conviction.
The head of the rank-and-file officers’ union was cool to the idea, suggesting it could tie officers’ hands in dealing with lawbreakers. But the captains’ union president expressed support for it.
Critics of the arrests suggest the summons strategy isn’t a perfect solution. Multiple marijuana-possession convictions can spur deportation even if the charges are violations — something defendants may not grasp if they decide to plead guilty, thinking the only consequence is a fine, legal advocates say. They also have concerns about how cases will be handled in crowded summons courts.
“A more meaningful change would be to de-emphasize enforcement of non-criminal violations across the board,” the New York Civil Liberties Union said in City Council hearing testimony last month.
But de Blasio put the difference simply when announcing the new policy: “Would you rather be arrested or be given a summons?”
Pot arrest stats
Low-level marijuana arrests came under scrutiny in New York City after rocketing up during the last 20 years. But they’ve declined markedly amid public pressure and policing changes in the last few years. A look at the annual numbers:
1985 — 4,546
1990 — 891
1995 — 5,715
2000 — 51,267
2005 — 29,754
2006 — 31,925
2007 — 39,163
2008 — 40,390
2009 — 46,493
2010 — 50,385
2011 — 50,688
2012 — 39,230
2013 — 28,954
2014 — 26,385
Source: New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services; Harry Levine, Queens College