Marijuana Legalization: What Is Decriminalization and Could New York Get Legal Weed?

Arrests for the possession of small amounts of marijuana in New York City may soon become a thing of the past. Mayor Bill de Blasio is preparing to instruct police to stop arresting people caught smoking in the city, according to the New York Daily News.

The move is part of a broad plan to change law enforcement in the city but could also be a move to prepare for imminent legalization. "We must end unnecessary arrests and end disparity in enforcement," de Blasio tweeted Tuesday.

It's been more than 40 years since New York state made the punishment for personal possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana a $100 fine on first offense. The penalty isn't even a misdemeanor, according to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Yet the number of people, particularly those of color, arrested for possession has remained high, something the mayor is trying to address in New York City. A 2013 state law finally brought down the number of arrests the New York City Police Department was making, according to the New York Post. But in that time, the number of tickets issued for possession increased drastically, and arrests were still being made.

Legalization in the state of New York would allow for the possession and smoking of legal marijuana in certain areas under particular circumstances. Decriminalization simply makes possession or smoking less of a criminal offense. In states where the drug has been decriminalized, people caught with marijuana for the first time are no longer meant to be jailed or given a criminal record.

While possession might be decriminalized or legal in some states, it is still illegal to sell the drug. This effectively keeps purchasing the drug illegal and selling in the hands of criminal organizations rather than large corporations. In New York, for example, selling as little as two grams of marijuana can result in a misdemeanor and up to three months in prison, along with fines.

Complete legalization in New York might include the rules around the sale of the drug as well. De Blasio is considering creating a task force to help build the structure around legalization, including zoning for dispensaries, according to the Daily News.

Elizabeth Croydon hands out free marijuana joints to Washington, D.C. residents working on Capitol Hill as part of the first annual Joint Session to mark 4/20 day and promote legalizing marijuana, on April 20, 2017. Saul Loeb/Getty Images