The Future of Marijuana Law in New York City – Panel Recap

On January 28th, the New York City Bar Association’s Committee on Drugs and the Law and New York City Affairs Committee convened an expert panel for a discussion of the past, present and possible futures of marijuana law in New York City. The panel was moderated by Touro Law Center Dean and Professor of Law Patricia Salkin, a land use expert, and featured Stephen Levin and Jumaane Williams, both City Council Members from Brooklyn, and Nitin Savur, Deputy Chief of the Trial Division of the New York County District Attorney’s Office.

From left: Noah Potter, Drugs and the Law Committee; Matthew S. Schweber, New York City Affairs Committee; Patricia Salkin, Dean and Professor of Law, Touro Law Center; Nitin Savur, Deputy Chief of Trial Division in Charge of Criminal Courts, Office of the New York County District Attorney; Stephen Levin, New York City Council Member, District 33; and Jumaane D. Williams, New York City Council Member, District 45.

Savur, who oversees criminal court for District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., described his office’s interest in reducing the number of marijuana misdemeanor cases clogging the courts. Between 2009-2014, there were over 49,000 misdemeanor marijuana cases. After attempting in 2012 to convince the State legislature to expand the scope of New York’s cannabis decriminalization statute, DA Vance recently endorsed the de Blasio administration’s announcement that the New York City Police Department will issue summonses for possession of personal-use amounts of cannabis instead of making arrests. Earlier, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson announced that his office would not prosecute first-time offenders for possession of personal-use amounts. The panelists all agreed that the profusion of marijuana arrests has been problematic. While marijuana was separated from other controlled substances under state law in the 1970s, a persistent problem has remained: while simple possession is a violation rather than a criminal offense, possessing marijuana in “public view” remains a B misdemeanor. The practice of police officers asking people to empty their pockets and then charging the misdemeanor offense has been exposed and criticized in the discourse around stop-and-frisk in New York. Council Member Williams is as concerned with who is getting arrested as much as the volume of arrests. He raised the issues of unequal enforcement, even from neighborhood to neighborhood. While Williams favors complete legalization, he hopes there are ways in the meantime for the city to take leadership to address the inequities, and he advocates automatic expungement of criminal records. Council Member Levin also hopes that Albany will step up with leadership in the future, and will continue to look for ways to advance policy at the local level and put pressure on the state legislature. Professor Salkin pointed out that local law is “ground zero” for discussion of legal cannabis. If state law changes, the next question is what localities can do to either opt out or influence implementation options. Issues about local control have cropped up in the medical marijuana arena, as they have with fracking, adult entertainment and numerous other issues. Professor Salkin suggested that New York City commission a “health impact assessment” of changes to marijuana policy, which would look at health impacts, mental health and social justice indicators. The panel discussed other changes in New York State law during 2014, including the Compassionate Care Act, which legalized limited uses of cannabis for medical purposes. The Department of Health has released draft regulations for public comment, but the effects of the new scheme will not be known for some time. You can hear and download a podcast of the the entire discussion here. The event was the first in a series on marijuana laws to be held at the Association. Check the City Bar’s calendar for information on the next event.