In the three months since the state’s cannabis legalization law took effect, marijuana-related arrests and summonses in New York City dropped like a stone.
While a post-legalization decrease is to be expected, the NYPD’s figures show the decline in the state’s largest city is far greater than has happened in other jurisdictions following the end of marijuana prohibition. The likely reason for this is the relatively unusual step lawmakers took to allow adults 21 and older to smoke cannabis wherever it’s legal to smoke tobacco.
In the first quarter of 2021, New York City cops made 163 arrests for marijuana possession. In the second quarter, the figure stood at just eight. Those arrests were for marijuana possession in excess of the three ounces permitted under New York’s cannabis laws.
Even more significantly, the first quarter of 2021 saw 3,687 summons issued for cannabis-related offenses. In the quarter following legalization, this fell to eight. Six of these concerned unlawful possession and the other two were for illicit sales. While cannabis is now legal in New York, there remains no legal way purchase it as the state is yet to launch its retail sales market.
For comparison, after Illinois legalized marijuana in 2020 the Chicago police department made almost 3,000 cannabis-related arrests – mostly for illicit sales and exceeding possession limits – that still disproportionately targeted black people. Like Illinois, New York also penalizes illicit sales and individuals that exceed possession limits but where the two differ is that New York permits public consumption of cannabis, so long as tobacco smoking is also permitted.
Like New York, Denver also reported a steep drop in cannabis possession arrests after it was legalized, but over the same period public consumption and display arrests rose dramatically from 8 in 2014 to 891 in 2016. Similarly, marijuana possession arrests in Washington, DC fell by around 50 percent after cannabis was legalized but the total number of marijuana arrests actually increased. This was largely driven by illicit sales, in a jurisdiction where there are no legal avenues to purchase cannabis, and the ban on public consumption. In the first four years of legal cannabis in Washington, DC, the police made 3,631 marijuana arrests, of which around 900 were for public consumption. And despite lawmakers’ rhetoric about marijuana legalization helping to end racial disparities, arrest data reveals this is far from the case.
Aside from allowing public consumption of cannabis, New York City also benefited from a timely memo sent by the NYPD to all its officers immediately after then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the state’s marijuana legalization bill into law. But clearly, the simple fact of allowing adults 21 and older to smoke cannabis wherever it is legal to smoke tobacco is the most significant factor in New York’s low post-legalization cannabis arrest rate. If some of the goals of marijuana legalization are to minimize law enforcement interactions with marginalized groups and reduce racial disparities in arrest rates, then lawmakers would do well to keep this policy in mind.