Pot smokers on Long Island shouldn’t expect a pass like their New York City counterparts.
Nassau and Suffolk law-enforcement officials said they intend to keep arresting low-level marijuana offenders even though the city is backing off because of a wide racial gap in arrests.
The counties will change direction only if Albany changes the law to address the disproportional impact on minorities. Like the city, Long Island’s arrest rates for marijuana possession are far higher for African-Americans and Hispanics, records show.
For Nassau and Suffolk police commissioners, the decision to stand firm on making marijuana arrests is clear-cut: It’s their job.
“The law in place is the law we enforce,” Nassau’s Patrick Ryder said in a statement.
“The Suffolk County Police Department is responsible for enforcing all laws on the books and will continue to carry out that responsibility by arresting people who violate the law,” Commissioner Geraldine Hart said.
Practicality is also a consideration for the Nassau County District Attorney’s Office, which works with a patchwork of law enforcement agencies.
“Unlike New York City, Nassau has not only our countywide police department, but also many municipal departments and, absent legislative direction, uniform policymaking is challenging,” said spokesman Brendan Brosh.
Suffolk District Attorney Timothy Sini didn’t return requests for comment.
Last week, the Manhattan and Brooklyn district attorneys said they would stop prosecuting possession and smoking violations in the interest of fairness.
“The dual mission of the Manhattan DA’s office is a safer New York and a more equal justice system,” District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said. “The ongoing arrest and criminal prosecution of predominantly black and brown New Yorkers for smoking marijuana serves neither of these goals.”
The policy pivot reflects New York City’s growing awareness of racial disparity in marijuana arrests: African-Americans and Hispanics accounted for 86 percent of the arrests for marijuana possession, records show. Mayor Bill de Blasio cited the numbers Tuesday when he announced the NYPD would overhaul its enforcement policies in 30 days.
On Long Island, arrest rates for marijuana possession are four times higher for minorities than for whites — five arrests for 10,000 whites and 20 arrests for 10,000 nonwhites, records show.
The District of Columbia and nine states, including Massachusetts and Vermont in the Northeast, have already legalized recreational marijuana use and the movement is gaining momentum in New York.
About a month ago, Democrat Cynthia Nixon made marijuana legalization the top policy priority in her bid to unseat Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. She cited the racial disparity in prosecutions.
After Nixon’s announcement, Cuomo said his administration would produce a study on legalization this month. The governor previously called marijuana a “gateway” drug and opposed legalization, but since has softened his stance.
Several lawmakers in Albany support a bill stuck in committee and some rank-and-file Democrats are calling for the state party to adopt a pro-legalization stance at its convention Wednesday and Thursday in Uniondale.
To Garden City defense attorney Steve Epstein, the county-by-county approach to enforcement is deeply flawed.
“It’s unfair to have two sets of rules — one for New York City and another for Long Island,” Epstein said. “We need statewide policy.”
Relaxed enforcement has the support of Jeffrey Reynolds, an addiction expert and president of the Mineola-based Family and Children’s Association.
Reynolds would like to see any savings from fewer marijuana arrests poured into drug education and prevention programs.
“We need a comprehensive approach where we address the public health risks of marijuana without arresting people for holding a dime bag,” Reynolds said.
Melissa Moore of the Drug Policy Alliance welcomes New York City’s enforcement retreat but called it a “bandage on a gaping hole” that fails to permanently remedy racial disparities in low-level drug arrests.
Even misdemeanor arrests for marijuana possession can keep young people from getting jobs or housing. A conviction could lead to the revocation of a student loan or could be considered a violation of immigration status, said Moore, the alliance’s deputy state director.
“This is a systematic issue which requires a systematic solution,” she said.
Arrests for marijuana possession and sales:
Year Nassau Suffolk
2016: 1,319 1,393
2015: 905 1,387
2014: 920 1,518
2013: 922 1,790
2012: 766 1,869
Source: State Division of Criminal Justice Services