New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio borrowed a page from the Clinton playbook tonight when he appeared to embrace two different stances on marijuana policy at once.
Earlier today, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson announced his intention “to end the prosecution of most low-level marijuana possession cases.” Police Commissioner Bill Bratton, who recently referred to marijuana decriminalization as “a major mistake and something I will never support,” responded to Thompson’s announcement by blithely stating that it would ”not result in any changes.” Most would interpret such contradictory statements as clear evidence of a disagreement. Not Mayor de Blasio. In a statement, his spokesperson declared:
"We echo Commissioner Bratton’s belief that as an elected official, it is Mr. Thompson’s prerogative to set policy for his office, and agree with the Commissioner that officers must enforce the law, as it is written, consistently across the city. That said, the mayor continues to believe—as does Commissioner Bratton—that it is important for officers to exercise discretion in their work, and that includes marijuana cases, as excessive arrests for small amounts of marijuana can be unproductive."
In other words, de Blasio theoretically supports the idea of arresting less marijuana offenders but isn’t terribly eager to embrace a policy that would actually result in less marijuana offenders being arrested. His refusal to take marijuana reform seriously explains why “marijuana arrests are not actually decreasing under the de Blasio administration.”
The Mayor’s blasé, non-committal attitude towards marijuana reform is somewhat surprising considering he spent nearly his entire mayoral campaign bemoaning the targeting of young black men in stop-and-frisk arrests. And while stop-and-frisks are now occurring less frequently, plenty of young black men are still being arrested for marijuana possession and dancing on the subway, among other petty offenses.
Ultimately, the Mayor only has so much wiggle room on the marijuana issue. It’s his upstate frenemy Andrew Cuomo who has the power to reform marijuana laws (don’t hold your breath). But when tangible progress can be made, the Mayor seems content to let the opportunity slip away. Progressives should expect and demand more from a man who rightly recognizes racial disparities in stop-and-frisk arrests as an urgent problem yet seems unwilling to tackle the related, nearly identical problem of racial disparities in marijuana arrests.
Larry Harvey, a 70-year-old medical marijuana patient with no criminal history, three of his relatives and a family friend each face mandatory minimum sentences of at least 10 years in prison after they were caught growing about 70 pot plants on their rural, mountainous property [in Washington].
The Harveys did have guns at their home, which is part of the reason for the lengthy possible prison time. They say the weapons were for hunting and protection, but prosecutors say two of the guns were loaded and in the same room as a blue plastic tub of pot.
Last year, the Department of Justice declared that, despite allowing Washington and Colorado to implement marijuana legalization, it would still prosecute people for, among other things, “the use of firearms in the cultivation and distribution of marijuana.” So if, like the Harveys, you legally grow marijuana and legally own firearms, you could still be hauled off to prison for the “crime” of doing these two legal things at the same time.
Federal marijuana policy is better today than it was a few years ago but outright legalization is the only policy that can prevent needless incarceration.
A Governor who (reportedly) has national ambitions can sometimes hinder progress on state issues that are still somewhat divisive at the national level. Andrew Cuomo supports decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana (primarily as a way to avoid high arrest rates) and he supports an unusual, quasi-legal medical marijuana plan. But he is decidedly against outright legalization, despite a clear declaration of support from most voters (and it’s very likely that support will only increase in the future). Cuomo may genuinely oppose legalization or he may feel the time is not yet right to publicly voice support for drug reform. Either way, it’s realistic to expect that, under enough pressure from the public, the Governor could be convinced to compromise or strike some sort of deal.
But if Cuomo is thinking of running for President, the choice of whether or not to support legalization becomes far more complicated. People in New Jersey are facing a similar problem. Is their Governor’s every move a calculated campaign stunt or is it something that actually benefits the state? Nobody should have to worry about their state government being a mere stepping stone on one man’s path to greater things, but it’s an unfortunate reality in a country that often values power more than public service.
NBC News has posted this gem of a headline, "Pot Fuels Surge In Drugged Driving Deaths." Like every good story, it leads with a compelling anecdote—in this case, someone who was killed by a stoned driver. Then it cites the following statistics:
As medical marijuana sales expanded into 20 states, legal weed was detected in the bodies of dead drivers three times more often during 2010 when compared to those who died behind the wheel in 1999, according to a new study from Columbia University published in the American Journal of Epidemiology.
“The trend suggests that marijuana is playing an increased role in fatal crashes,” said Dr. Guohua Li, a co-author and director of the Center for Injury Epidemiology and Prevention at Columbia University Medical Center. The researchers examined data from the federal Fatality Analysis Reporting System (FARS), spanning more than 23,000 drivers killed during that 11-year period.
But wait! Buried towards the bottom of the article are these statistics:
A separate study — also based on FARS data — found that in states where medical marijuana was approved, traffic fatalities decrease by as much as 11 percent during the first year after legalization. Written by researchers at the University of Colorado, Oregon and Montana State University, the paper was published in 2013 in the Journal of Law & Economics.
Those authors theorized pot, for some, becomes a substitute for alcohol. They cited a recent, 13-percent drop in drunk-driving deaths in states where medical marijuana is legal.
“Marijuana reform is associated with … a decrease in traffic fatalities, most likely due to its impact on alcohol consumption,” said Michael Elliott, executive director of the Marijuana Industry Group, a trade association in Colorado.
So there’s an increase in marijuana-related crashes in states with some form of legalized pot, but there’s also a corresponding decrease in alcohol-related crashes. The net result is a decrease in the overall number of traffic fatalities. Yet NBC still chose to run a headline that, without context, suggests that legal pot is leading to more traffic fatalities, which it is not. The opposite is in fact true.
Most people aren’t going to dig to the bottom of the article to get this important contextual information. Instead, they’ll see the headline, read the first couple paragraphs, and the message they’ll get is that legal pot is increasing the number of traffic fatalities—without realizing that legal pot has actually reduced traffic fatalities overall.
Presenting the story in this manner is irresponsible. The headline is misleading, as are the initial supporting paragraphs. A lot of people are going to walk away from this article with the wrong message because NBC presented it in a poor fashion. And now, we get to listen to anti-pot crusaders tell us about how legal pot activists have blood on their hands, despite the fact that legal pot hasn’t actually increased the number of people dying in traffic fatalities. It has actually reduced them. And if this story leads people in battleground states to vote against legalized pot, it will be NBC that has blood on its hands, not legalization activists.