Sunday February 17, 2013

NEW YORK -- Low-level marijuana arrests dropped 22 percent last year amid scrutiny of how the nation’s biggest city polices small amounts of pot, according to new data available as the governor and mayor call for changing a law that has spurred a flood of arrests and criticism.

Still, more than 39,000 people were picked up on minor pot possession charges citywide in 2012, according to state Division of Criminal Justice Services data obtained by The Associated Press. Low-level marijuana offenses remained the number-one cause of arrests in the city 35 years after state lawmakers decided it wasn’t a crime to have a small amount of pot if it’s out of sight.

The New York Police Department says it can’t pinpoint what caused the drop, which measures the first full year after an order meant to thwart what some considered a tricky arrest practice. Critics say the number still measures a toll of questionable police tactics.

Otherwise, "these arrests would drop dramatically," said Gabriel Sayegh, the New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that supports less punitive drug laws. "We need to reform the laws and bring accountability to the NYPD."

After averaging about 2,200 a year for about two decades, the marijuana arrests began rocketing up in the late 1990s and topped 50,000 in 2011. The lowest-level marijuana crime accounted for 1 in every 8 arrests in the city last year, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, which has analyzed years of state data.

Critics have long said the arrests do little for public safety but inflict a lot of personal harm. Now some of the state’s most powerful politicians are saying so, too.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who tried last spring to ease the pot possession law, used his State of the State speech last month to emphasize that he’ll try again this year. Mayor Michael Bloomberg announced in his State of the City address Thursday that the city would change how it handles the arrests to save police time and spare many people the lengthy process of being booked and held for arraignment.

The discussion in New York comes at a dynamic moment in the decades-long national debate over marijuana and its place in drug policy. After several states OK’d medical marijuana, Washington and Colorado voters agreed this fall to decriminalize small-scale marijuana possession for recreational use.

Under New York’s 1977 law, it’s a non-criminal violation to have less than 25 grams -- about 7/8 of an ounce -- of the drug in a drawer, pocket or bag. That means a ticket, not an arrest. But if the pot is "open to public view," it’s a misdemeanor. That spurs an arrest and carries the potential for a criminal record and up to three months in jail, though such cases often get dismissed or resolved with no incarceration except the time spent in custody between arrest and arraignment. In New York City, that can easily be 24 hours or more.

Starting next month, such arrests will be handled with an appearance ticket -- a summons for a future court date -- unless the person lacks identification or has an open warrant, Bloomberg announced Thursday.

While welcoming the appearance-ticket plan, critics of the marijuana arrests say the law and police tactics are what ultimately need changing.