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NYC To Limit Marijuana Prosecutions


Mayor Bill De Blasio said he wanted the police department to “end unnecessary arrests” related to marijuana possession, and Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said his agency would stop prosecuting low-level possession and smoking offenses. What do these changes mean for you?

Mr. Vance cited a report which concluded that marijuana possession arrests “waste an enormous amount of criminal justice resources for no punitive, rehabilitative, deterrent, or other public safety benefit. And they do so in a racially disparate way that stigmatizes and disadvantages the arrestees.” Mayor De Blasio echoed these thoughts, specifically with regard to racial bias. The mayor is already answering questions about a recent report on this subject. According to the New York Times, black New Yorkers are arrested on marijuana charges eight times more often than their white counterparts.

Other prominent officials, such as Brooklyn DA Eric Gonzalez, said they planned to do likewise. A formal policy should be in place by the summer of 2018.

Misdemeanor Marijuana Laws in New York

In response to arguments like these, many states have either softened their anti-marijuana laws or eliminated them altogether. In 2014, it looked like the Empire State might be headed in this direction. Governor Andrew Cuomo allowed a few hospitals to prescribe cannabis. But New York law remains unchanged. Marijuana is still a Schedule I controlled substance.

There are various laws on the subject. Some are located in the New York Penal Code and others are in the Public Health Code. In general, the punishment varies according to the amount, as follows:

  • Less than 25 grams (about seventy-five joints): fine only
  • 25 grams to two ounces (about one hundred joints): three months in jail and/or $500 fine
  • Two to eight ounces: one year and/or $1,000.

Any higher amount is a felony. Furthermore, if the police find scales, money, plastic baggies, or any other possible evidence of drug trafficking, they normally upgrade the charges. True, the punishments are fairly minor unless you have an awful lot of marijuana. But marijuana convictions often have significant collateral consequences. So, it is important to fight them. It is too costly to simply pay the fine and move on.

Dealing with Marijuana Cases in New York

One of the best ways to avoid these collateral consequences is to get the charges changed to something else, like disorderly conduct. Section 240.20 is only a violation and carries almost no collateral consequences. The law applies to so many things, like cutting in line or double parking, that it’s not associated with marijuana or drug use in any way. That’s a very big plus.

Typically, New Yorkers arrested for small amounts of marijuana possession were smoking it in public. In other words, they were creating a nuisance in the minds of some people. Therefore, most prosecutors and judges go along with this change.

If the evidence is particularly weak or there are other extenuating circumstances, an attorney can sometimes arrange a plea to a comparable violation in the Administrative Code. That way, the defendant does not have to pay the Penal Law conviction surcharge.


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