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Tuesday, May 21, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

‘New’ Pot-Reform Policy, or Lipstick on a Pig?

MANHATTAN (CN) - When it comes to marijuana-law reform, New Yorkers seem to have long-term memory loss.

Though it has been law of the land in the Big Apple since 1977, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio last week announced what he called a "new policy" - making possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana a violation, rather than a misdemeanor.

While de Blasio's policy is slated to go into effect today, retired NYPD Lt. Joanne Naughton said in a phone interview that it "is not a new policy at all."

"Mayor de Blasio was just asking the police department to follow the law," said Naughton, a former undercover narcotics officer who is now a member of the non-profit group Law Enforcement Against Prohibition.

De Blasio's press release that touted the initiative as "the latest in a series of steps" his administration has taken "to rebuild the relationship between the NYPD and the communities they serve," traces its origins to Penal Law 221.05.

This 37-year-old statue comes from the Marijuana Reform Act of 1977, making possession of small amounts of pot akin to a traffic violation.

Naughton, who notes that she was once a "good warrior in the War on Drugs," says she came to oppose criminalization as she grew disillusioned about "how futile the whole thing is."

In this regard, de Blasio's gesture toward marijuana-law reform may have a ways to go.

"Giving summonses to people instead of taking them into custody, in the short term, sounds a lot more humane," Naughton said . "However, first of all, it requires everybody to have identification."

Those who are not carrying IDs can still be arrested, and those that have them will have to go to court, she added.

"Fully 25 percent of people who get summonses don't go back to court because a lot of them don't realize the seriousness of the summons," she said. "What happens then? An arrest warrant is issued. Cops can and will go to a person's home, maybe in the middle of the night, or go to that person's job, and take them out in handcuffs to court."

Although Albany has the sole power to change the penal code, de Blasio could instruct Police Commissioner Bill Bratton to focus his attention elsewhere, Naughton said.

"Not every law has to be enforced," she noted.

She pointed out that New York still technically has long ignored adultery laws on the books.

Likewise, Naughton cited the NYPD's now-defunct anti-gambling unit as an example of prohibition's failure.

Then-Mayor John Lindsay disbanded the unit after the Knapp Commission confirmed its culture of bribery brought to light by the NYPD's most famous whistle-blower, Frank Serpico.

"Enforcing unenforceable laws is a prime source of corruption, and they eliminated that source of corruption," Naughton said.

Since earlier this year, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson has stopped prosecuting people busted with small amounts of marijuana. He did not respond to a request for comment on de Blasio's policy by press time.

The weeklong window that de Blasio gave the NYPD to comply with his policy appears to invite police to break a law that has been in effect for decades.

Naughton commented on this irony at length in a follow-up email.

"When Mayor de Blasio took office, he faced a policy that had been in effect for a very long time - at least as long as the three Bloomberg Administrations, and probably longer," she wrote. "And I suppose he felt he had to lead people, including the police and prosecutors, away from this practice of non-compliance with the law one step at a time.

"There are times when a section of law may be suspended or ignored as long as its effect on the people is not a negative one. And a 'breaking in period' would be valid if enforcing the statute were to change things in a negative way for the people; but the people don't need such a window for a policy that would have a positive effect, such as this would. Therefore, it seems to me that a window of non-compliance with the law would not benefit the people at all.

"What appears to be happening is that the police and prosecutors are being given this window to ease the way for them to begin enforcing the law again instead of continuing to ignore it because there has been some discontent from law enforcement about the new/old policy and the mayor seems to be concerned that he not be perceived as being too liberal or too progressive," she continued. "Of course, his primary concern should be how the enforcement of the law affects the people."

The New York City Law Department did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

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