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Manhattan’s district attorney plays politics with cannabis rap sheets

With just two days to go before the contentious primary election season comes to a conclusion, many people are wondering if policies surrounding the regulation of cannabis will change in New York, regardless of who is running for governor.

That’s why some news about an upcoming and unexpected announcement in the coming weeks from the Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. has many people buzzing.

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The New York Times is reporting that Vance is expected to announce that his office will vacate misdemeanor marijuana warrants dating back to 1978. But how accurate are these reports? Why the delay in the actual announcement of vacating warrants if rumors are already swirling?  

Is Vance waiting to see if and how the cannabis cloud settles after the primary dust-up? Is it possible that he is going to maintain the status quo on current marijuana warrants? Or is Vance afraid to be shown up by his neighbor across the bridge, Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez?

Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez/DA Eric Gonzalez

Battle of the five boroughs

Brooklyn’s district attorney, who is the first Latino elected to serve in the position in New York State, announced that his office is currently vacating 3,438 open marijuana warrants stemming from court summonses.

In addition to vacating marijuana warrants, Gonzalez announced that his Office would offer Brooklynites with a low-level conviction for cannabis possession the opportunity to expunge that criminal record.

“As we move away from criminalizing low-level possession and use of marijuana, we cannot forget those who carry a conviction for conduct that is no longer being prosecuted. That criminal record can seriously impede a person’s ability to get a job, education, housing and other important services. It is only fair to relieve these individuals of that burden and allow them to turn over a new leaf and move on with their lives.,” Gonzalez said in a statement issued by his office.

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While this initiative is certainly the first of its kind in New York, it is in line with current criminal justice reform efforts in the state.

District attorneys throughout the state, including Manhattan and Brooklyn, have stopped prosecuting the majority of people arrested on marijuana possession charges. Vance’s Manhattan’s Hope Program, launched in January 2017, allows individuals arrested for low-level drug offenses to participate and complete a drug treatment program, rather than be arrested, arraigned, and potentially convicted by a court of law.

Since 2017, at least 4,100 individuals are eligible for consideration to participate in the Manhattan Hope Program, which went into effect in August. If Vance should announce that he intends to vacate marijuana warrants, 3,042 warrants will be vacated. Of the defendants in those cases, 78 percent are black and Hispanic.

New York’s past policies of stop-and-frisk searches often resulted in a disproportionate number of black and Hispanic men being arrested on drug charges.

New York Public Advocate Letitia James was quoted in Gonzalez’s press release, stating, “Far too often, arrests for committing low-level offenses follow our young people – mostly black and brown men – throughout their lives, causing them to lose out on critical resources they need to survive. This new initiative allows for individuals who have misdemeanor marijuana convictions to get the fresh start they deserve. I thank Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez for his leadership in ensuring New York City is on the path to becoming a fair and equal City for all.”

The Brooklyn expungement program is part of Gonzalez’s Justice 2020 Initiative, a series of criminal justice reforms to be released in spring 2019 and enacted by 2020, the year Gonzalez will be up for reelection.

Brooklyn-citizens previously convicted of marijuana possession will have the opportunity to receive legal consultation and begin the paperwork to expunge their records at a city Begin Again event on Sept. 21-22.

Source: New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services

All’s fair in politics during an election year

With cannabis being a hot-topic issue during the primaries, concerned voters have to wonder if Vance is simply playing up political hype around cannabis-issues to remain newsworthy.

Brooklyn’s district attorney has announced his justice initiative, which includes not only vacating marijuana warrants but proposes to expunge cannabis convictions from criminal records in a state where only medicinal marijuana use and possession is legal. So what has Manhattan done?

While he may be currently holding on to a potentially buzzworthy policy announcement, Vance hasn’t rested on his laurels when it comes to criminal justice reform. In addition to the Manhattan Hope Program, Vance is building on his Manhattan Summons Initiative, which aims to end the criminal prosecution of 20,000 low-level offenses, annually.

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Vance does at least seem to understand the importance of cannabis-related warrants, stating that “The effect of an open warrant can be very negative. It can prevent you from getting a job. It can prevent you from going to the police to report other crimes for fear that you’re going to be picked up. If you’re an immigrant, you also run the risk of deportation.”

“When folks say this is crazy and New York is going to hell in a handbasket, we are not. The city wants a rational approach to criminal justice.”

While it is currently unclear if other New York boroughs are on similar pot-policy making paths, one thing is clear. New Yorkers are ready for a change when it comes to cannabis regulations.

Manhattan residents are going to have to wait and see if they’ll receive the same cannabis-related criminal reforms from their district attorney as their neighbors across the Brooklyn Bridge.

*Photo: Cy Vance for DA

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