In New York City, Racial Disparities in Cannabis Law Enforcement Persist

Amid efforts to reduce and eliminate criminal penalties for cannabis possession in New York in recent years, cannabis-related criminal summonses spiked, and racial disparities in cannabis enforcement persisted in New York City. 

Young, male people of color were most often issued criminal summonses for cannabis possession in 2019, according to a new report by the Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College of Criminal Justice that covers criminal summonses from 2003-2019. 

“In 2019, marijuana possession was the most common charge for criminal summons issuance, and also led to the greatest number and proportion of warrants issued,” the report concludes. 

Some context: New York decriminalized cannabis possession up to 25 grams, so long as it wasn’t in public view, in 1977. But the New York City Police Department’s stop-and-frisk practices, during which those possessing cannabis were compelled to bring it into public view, led to tens of thousands of cannabis possession arrests under Mayor Michael Bloomberg. This spurred a shift in enforcement by the NYPD in 2014, under Mayor Bill de Blasio, to hand out summonses instead of misdemeanor charges for those possessing up to 25 grams of cannabis, even if it was in public view, so long as it wasn’t burning. In 2018, that approach expanded to include those who were burning cannabis, too, with some exceptions. In 2019, state lawmakers passed legislation that made up to two ounces of cannabis possession a violation, similar to a parking ticket, that came with a fine. And as Cannabis Wire reported this week, a push to legalize adult use cannabis is expected to resume as lawmakers reconvene at the start of the state’s session. 

The report dives into how criminal summons issuance and outcomes have shifted in New York City between the years 2003 to 2019, including against the backdrop of these changes in cannabis law enforcement. A criminal summons is an appearance ticket from law enforcement for some “lower-level” offenses, like subway turnstile jumping or, now, cannabis possession. While overall criminal summonses have dropped in New York City, the rise in cannabis summonses over the time period studied, the report notes, “is likely a reflection of reforms aimed at reducing custodial arrests for marijuana.” 

The DCJ report found that, in 2019, cannabis possession became the most frequently issued criminal summons charge type, with a 46% spike from 10,207 summonses handed out in 2003 to nearly 15,000 in 2019. During that time, public alcohol consumption, which once topped the list of most frequent reason for a criminal summons, experienced a steep 96% drop.

Digging deeper into the data, in 2019, “almost half of all marijuana possession summonses were issued to Black people (45.5%).” Also in 2019, teenagers and young adults aged 16-24 were more likely to receive a criminal summons for cannabis possession than for any other summons charge. Further, of the total cannabis possession summonses, an overwhelming 89% identified as male, and 11% female. 

Crucially, in 2019, the highest number (4,229, or 18%) of warrants that police issued were for cannabis possession, indicating that while summonses are a reduced penalty when compared to an arrest, those who receive them can still face more serious consequences within the criminal justice system. 

Though, there was a “steady decline in summons issuance” after New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed decriminalization legislation into law in August 2019. And in 2019, the “highest proportion of criminal summonses that were found to be legally insufficient were for marijuana possession (42.6%).”

“Marijuana policy changes have led to some increases in the issuance of marijuana summonses as well as some subsequent decreases, as intended by the changing legislative and policy reforms over time,” the report concluded. 

Two cannabis-related questions that the researchers listed for future research include: “How have the most recent changes in marijuana policy at the end of 2019 impacted the issuance of marijuana summonses in 2020?” and “How are other types of enforcement (i.e. arrests) for drug charges impacted by the marijuana policy changes?” 

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