New York Marijuana: What to Know About Weed Arrests Amid Legalization Debate, DA Reforms

By David Robinson, Iohud

New York’s recreational marijuana battle sits on the front line of a generational war over American cannabis laws. As debate heats up, USA TODAY Network New York is compiling answers to key questions about legalized cannabis.

Police kept arresting hundreds of New Yorkers on marijuana charges this year despite the push to legalize pot and the fact that some prosecutors were declining to take the cases.

Some arrests seemingly disregarded the fact several district attorneys stopped prosecuting or reduced penalties for low-level marijuana possession to limit unjust harm to poor and minority communities.

Westchester District Attorney Anthony Scarpino at in office in White Plains on Dec. 20, 2017.   (Photo: Ricky Flores/The Journal News)

Westchester District Attorney Anthony Scarpino at in office in White Plains on Dec. 20, 2017. (Photo: Ricky Flores/The Journal News)

Westchester County District Attorney Anthony Scarpino Jr. reformed marijuana prosecutions in January, for instance, but police still arrested 163 mostly black and Hispanic people in Westchester for low-level possession through March, the most recent state data show.

Another 280 marijuana possession arrests involved communities with district attorneys that took a similar stance, including Albany and parts of New York City.

While down from most previous years, the pot possession arrests underscored the complicated societal damage connected to marijuana legal reforms unfolding across the country.

“It is not just being arrested and then having the charges not prosecuted, but other collateral consequences,” said Clare Degnan, executive director of the Legal Aid Society of Westchester County.

In addition to time and money spent in court, the potential repercussions span everything from affecting future criminal prosecutions to immigration and deportation issues, Degnan said. The outcomes depend upon a range of legal factors.

Still, Scarpino’s office said about 90% of the low-level pot arrests in Westchester involved burning or possessing marijuana in public view, which is now prosecuted as a violation as opposed to a misdemeanor under prior policy.

The violations won’t show up on criminal records like misdemeanors that cause discrimination in housing, job and school applications, Scarpino said.

“The whole purpose of this policy was to try to create a more equitable system,” he said.

Yet Westchester’s low-level marijuana arrests overall included 89 black people and 49 Hispanic people compared to 19 white people, suggesting limited progress in resolving social justice failures.

Scarpino noted the number and demographics of arrests reflect policing decisions.

“I have no control over the local police departments,” he said. “This position is such that I can only control what we’re prosecuting.”

Scarpino’s marijuana reform took effect Jan. 14, the day before Gov. Andrew Cuomo unveiled his plan to legalize recreational pot use for adults.

Months later, however, the legalization debate is still raging, and some sheriffs and police officials vow to keep making marijuana arrests.

That includes the state police covering Westchester and Albany counties.

“State Troopers are sworn to enforce the law, they cannot pick and choose which ones to enforce,” said Beau Duffy, state police spokesman. “Decisions on how to prosecute charges are left up to the district attorneys.”

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