After years of opposing marijuana legalization, Mayor Bill de Blasio joined the vast majority of his fellow Democrats and 62 percent of Americans by throwing his support behind the measure on Thursday morning.
"Change must happen and it must happen the right way. That is the essence of what I feel," de Blasio said at a press conference in a Washington Heights community center to mark the release of a report from The Mayor's Office on Cannabis Legalization. "The time has come to rewrite the rules, to break the mold of the past, to repair and redeem the lives of people who were treated unjustly."
Ten states and the District of Columbia have legalized marijuana for recreational use. Governor Andrew Cuomo said on Monday that marijuana legalization is one of his top priorities for 2019, several months after his own report justifying the legalization of marijuana was released.
In explaining his delay, de Blasio said that New York City is a "more complex more difficult place than anywhere else."
"I've been very public about the fact that, you know, I cant even remember whether I inhaled because it was so long ago. I tried marijuana in college, it wasn't my thing, I haven't used it since," the mayor said. "But I think the bigger issues are, were we gonna create something that actually was gonna be fair, create something that addresses the problems, or just open the floodgates?"
The report recommends that the use of marijuana be limited to New Yorkers 21 or older, that past marijuana convictions be expunged, and that measures be taken to ensure that small, minority owned businesses are able to take advantage of the legal marijuana market. The mayor was insistent on this last point. "Let's exclude corporate America from this equation, period," de Blasio said.
The report echoes many of the pillars of The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, a state bill co-sponsored by Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo), and State Senator Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), which is just as well because marijuana legalization is the state's purview, not the city's. ("Everyone in Albany should make sure they get it right," the mayor added.)
"I’m glad that the Mayor has come out in support of legalizing adult-use marijuana, and particularly that his report recognizes the need for restorative justice and ensuring those most burdened by prohibition can benefit from legalization," Kreuger said in a statement to Gothamist.
One crucial player missing from the mayor's announcement: the NYPD. In September, the department pledged to stop arresting New Yorkers for smoking marijuana in public, unless that person is on parole or probation, has a misdemeanor or felony warrant, does not have identification, is categorized as a violent offender, or is behind the wheel of a car. The NYPD also said they would arrest those who they feel pose a legitimate public safety threat.
According to the press release for the announcement, arrests for public consumption of marijuana are down 80.6 percent and summonses have also decreased 30 percent since the policy change.
Around 800,000 New Yorkers were arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana over the last 20 years, the vast majority of them Black or Hispanic, even though marijuana was decriminalized in the state in 1977.
Asked if smoking marijuana in public under a legalized framework would give an NYPD officer the reasonable suspicion necessary to stop and question them, the head of the Mayor's Office of Criminal Justice, Elizabeth Glazer, said each case would be "very, very fact specific," and deferred the question to Manhattan DA Cy Vance, Jr.
"If as the mayor hopes, that marijuana is legalized, then it would no longer necessarily be the position that the police would be seeing criminal conduct occurring in front of them," Vance said.
Anthony Posada, the supervising attorney for the community justice unit of the Legal Aid Society, told Gothamist that the NYPD would retain broad discretion in what to do when encountering people smoking marijuana.
"What we find that will be the issue, and has consistently been the issue, is the enforcement and how it's disproportionate to Black and brown communities," Posada said. "Even now in a world where summonses have been reduced, arrests have gone down—they're still concentrated on people of color."
A spokesperson for the NYPD declined to comment on the mayor's report or the department's absence from the announcement, but said that Commissioner Jimmy O'Neill would have a media availability on Friday afternoon.