New York Police Department Commissioner Bratton holds an example of what 25 grams of marijuana would look like next to New York City Mayor de Blasio during a news conference regarding marijuana policy in New York on November 10, 2014.

(New York) – The New York City Police Department’s plans, reported on November 10, 2014, to cease arresting people found with small amounts of marijuana will make an important difference in the lives of thousands of people every year. Police officers will instead issue tickets for such offenses.

“Large-scale marijuana arrests have swept hundreds of thousands of people, mostly African Americans and Latinos, into the criminal justice system with no apparent public safety benefit,” said Alba Morales, criminal justice researcher at Human Rights Watch. “The policy change on marijuana arrests is a step in the right direction, though any criminalization of drug possession for personal use remains problematic.” 

The arrests had been a hallmark of New York police practices since then-Mayor Rudolph Giuliani’s crackdown on marijuana in the mid-1990s. The NYPD made 586,320 misdemeanor marijuana arrests between 1996 and 2011. The vast majority of people arrested for this offense have been African American or Latino, even though all races report using drugs at comparable rates.

Officials had justified the arrests on the ground that they would help police identify people who will go on to commit more serious offenses. However, in a 2012 report, Human Rights Watch found that marijuana arrests were not an effective means of identifying potentially dangerous offenders. The report examined the records of 30,000 people with no prior record who had been arrested in New York City for marijuana possession in 2003 and 2004. Over 90 percent of them had no felony convictions as of 2012.

Prosecuting low-level marijuana possession is not cheap – a recent Drug Policy Alliance study found that these prosecutions cost New York City $75 million in 2010 alone. But the costs paid by those arrested are even more troubling. In addition to the trauma of arrest and detention, a person convicted of misdemeanor marijuana possession can be denied employment, barred from public housing, and suffer serious immigration consequences, including, in certain circumstances, deportation and bars on reentering the country.

During his campaign, Mayor Bill de Blasio said he would push for statewide legislation to decriminalize minor marijuana possession, and that he would instruct the NYPD to stop arresting people for possession of small amounts of marijuana. But there was no decline in such arrests during his first months in office. The November 10 announcement indicates that the mayor may be delivering on his campaign promise. However, even ticketing marijuana possession could lead to unnecessary jail time if, for example, a person misses a court date and an arrest warrant is issued.

Progress toward full decriminalization of personal use and possession has moved slowly. In 2012 and 2013, two bills introduced by Governor Andrew Cuomo to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana stalled in the legislature.

“The criminal justice system is simply the wrong tool to address concerns over drug use and possession,” Morales said. “In deciding to spare marijuana users from the trauma and consequences of arrest, New York City is taking an important step.”