On Friday NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelly issued a directive to all precincts ordering them to stop arresting New Yorkers for small quantities of marijuana if the marijuana is not in plain view.
This is a major reversal for a department that took great pride in its aggressive policing policy. Conducting 600,000 stop-and-frisks, the NYPD made more than 50,000 marijuana possession arrests in 2010. Although marijuana is decriminalized in New York, making possession only a ticketable offense, police have exploited a loophole in the law, routinely tricking and intimidating citizens into “voluntarily” revealing their contraband. This so-called “brandishing” of marijuana is a misdemeanor crime.
The campaign to end the arrests was led by the Drug Policy Alliance (a major “Flex Your Rights” funder). According to DPA’s Evan Goldstein, Flex videos played an important role in the effort.
“When we met with organizations working on juvenile justice, re-entry, housing rights, and other issues important to the community, we discovered that they weren’t interested in marijuana arrests because they didn’t see how it affected their community. The issue that united us was policing in communities of color. That’s why 10 Rules was such a vital tool for starting a real conversation about the injustice behind these marijuana arrests.”
The immediate impact of Kelly’s order is uncertain. The order doesn’t change the law itself — but instructs officers to comply with the law. This subtle change could result in tens of thousands fewer marijuana arrests annually in New York. Also, officers will have less incentive to randomly stop and frisk citizens if they can no longer arrest marijuana-only offenders. This could result in hundreds of thousands fewer stop-and-frisks.
What is certain is that citizens can successfully pressure law enforcement to change the way they do their job for the better. To paraphrase Sinatra: If we can make it happen in New York, we can make it happen anywhere.