Tokin’ in Brooklyn: D.A.’s Office Won’t Prosecute Minor Marijuana Offenses

Where the weed at
A woman takes part in a 420 dance party, an event celebrating marijuana culture, at Central Park in New York on April 20, 2014. REUTERS/Carlo Allegri

The Brooklyn District Attorney’s office announced yesterday that it will no longer prosecute individuals charged with small-scale marijuana offenses. Possession may still result in arrest, but the new policy will release individuals possessing less than two ounces without them having to appear in court. The timing is impeccable, as New York became the 23rd state to approve the use of medical marijuana on Monday.

District Attorney Kenneth Thompson proposed the policy upon his election last April, but it has been delayed due to negotiations with police officials. In the memo, Thompson said the goal is to keep nonviolent individuals and young people of color out of the criminal justice system. Marijuana arrests increased significantly in New York during stop-and-frisk confrontations.

“This new policy is a reasonable response to the thousands of low-level marijuana arrests that weigh down the criminal justice system, require significant resources that could be redirected to more serious crimes and take an unnecessary toll on offenders,” said Thompson in an official statement. Prosecutors say the new policy will utilize D.A. office resources more effectively.

According to statistics from the Brooklyn D.A.’s office, the borough processed over 8,500 cases in 2013. Class ‘B’ misdemeanor marijuana offenses accounted for two-thirds of possession charges last year. “Given that these cases are ultimately—and predictably—dismissed, the burdens that they pose on the system and the individual are difficult to justify,” Thompson stated.

People with criminal histories can still be prosecuted for possession of small amounts, as well as people who toke in public, especially around playgrounds, buses or subways. Violators will be charged with misdemeanors for either burning or holding marijuana out in the open or possessing marijuana in quantities more than 25 grams. Offenders under the age of 18 will be placed in a program to be “successfully redirected onto a healthier path,” according to the memo.

If arrested, pot-toting individuals will still be taken to a precinct station house, and then central booking before being given either a desk appearance ticket for a later court date or await the next day’s in-court arraignment. The district attorney’s office, if it decides not to prosecute, will either release the person or will send a letter dismissing the individual from court appearance. Offenders’ fingerprints will then be destroyed.

While negotiating the policy, police officials insisted that lighted joints be punishable as a public-safety issue, particularly around children. Police Commissioner Bill Bratton released a statement clarifying that the policy shift “will not result in any changes in the policies and procedures of the NYPD,” suggesting that the new policy might cause rifts between NYPD and the D.A.