Photo: Second from left is Councilmember Rory Lancman; third from left Councilmember Donovan Richards; speaking Jillian Modzeleski of Brooklyn Defender Services; next to Modzeleski is Councilmember Antonio Reynoso. [by Benjamin Rubin]

By Oscar Montenegro, Ben Rubin and Dakota O’Brien

Ten thousand.

This is how many fewer arrests could occur with enforcement changes coming to the current marijuana laws in New York City which take effect on Sept. 1. Some have seen this as a step in the right direction in police relations and towards the legalization of marijuana.

But not everyone feels this way.

During a rally Thursday morning, New York City Councilmembers Donovan Richards and Rory Lancman, both Democrats and both from Queens, along with Chris Alexander of the Drug Policy Alliance and others spoke about the flaws these changes have. They said that the city’s marijuana policies will continue to disproportionately affect people of color, notably immigrants and those with a criminal history hoping to have a fresh start.

Councilmember Antonio Reynoso, a Democrat representing parts of Brooklyn and Queens, was also at the protest held outside City Hall.

Lancman described the old and new policies as “fundamentally discriminatory and rooted in racism.” He spoke about how this new policy will continue making lifetime criminals out of people whose only offense is smoking or possessing marijuana.

“For all practical purposes, marijuana possession and smoking is legal in New York City, if you are white,” Lancman said. “But if you are a person of color, then you are going to be arrested, summonsed, prosecuted at rates that would make the Jim Crow South blush.”

Richards and Lancman have been vocal critics of Mayor Bill de Blasio and the NYPD’s changes to the current marijuana police policies. According to city police, 16,925 people were arrested in 2017 for low-level marijuana possession or smoking in public. This is a one-percent drop from 2016.

Eighty-six percent of those arrested were black or Latino. The New York State Health Department released a study saying that communities of color do not use marijuana more than other groups do.

The new policy, in general, will have police officers issue summonses instead of making arrests for marijuana possession or use. However, an arrest will be issued if the suspect doesn’t have identification, if there is an outstanding warrant, a criminal history, or if the suspect is on parole or probation. Smoking while driving or sitting in a car will also lead to arrest, as will the selling of the drug.

Lancman said, “This is an intolerable situation in 2018 in NYC.”

According to Lancman, the new policy, just like the old one, endangers undocumented immigrants and “puts a target on their back,” because they will face deportation if they are arrested and must go to court to defend themselves.

Richards stressed the need to “change the code,” and make marijuana summonses civil and not criminal. “Just like drinking in public, these summonses should not result in an arrest warrant, not immediately and not ever,” Richards said. He also said he hopes for the support on the state level from individuals like State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.

Alexander of the Policy Alliance was present and spoke about how the main issue with the policy is that “prior involvement in the criminal justice system determines future involvement.” Also, he criticized de Blasio’s sincerity in saying he wants to end racial disparities in the city. He said the mayor is “sharpening the tool they already had to target communities of color.”

Lancman urged constituents to stay cautious after the change goes into effect. He suggested that people contact his or Richards’ office if a police officer isn’t following protocol on this issue. He urged citizens also to stay engaged with advocacy groups. He called on the public to demand that de Blasio and Police Commissioner James O’Neal revisit this issue, since racial disparities continue.

As for any future legislation, 2019 looks like the earliest time that the state could put this matter to a vote. Governor Andrew Cuomo and de Blasio have both been critical of marijuana policies, as applied on both state and city levels. But they have recently warmed to the idea of legalizing marijuana. During his Wednesday debate with challenger Cynthia Nixon, Cuomo said “the benefits (of legalization) outweigh the risks.” Cuomo said mass incarceration has worsened because of unfair marijuana laws.

How bad have these unfair marijuana policies been? According to Lancman, they have been “just like Stop and Frisk.”