Mayor Bill de Blasio, one of few New York politicians who has opposed marijuana legalization, promised to relax police enforcement after facing increasing pressure to address racial disparities in pot arrests.
De Blasio, a self-described progressive, vowed to “overhaul and reform” city police policies within the next 30 days. He made the announcement Tuesday during a speech at a conference in Washington hosted by the Democratic-leaning Center for American Progress, without providing details.
“We must and we will end unnecessary arrests and end disparity in enforcement,” said de Blasio, a second-term Democrat. “We have to do better, there’s no question about it.”
De Blasio, who has traveled the U.S. saying he wants to influence national policy debate, for months has resisting calls to decriminalize marijuana. Meanwhile, more and more states are moving toward legalization, and President Donald Trump recently endorsed allowing states to decide how to regulate the drug, which is illegal under federal law.
New York City Council Speaker Corey Johnson, joined by civil-rights activist Al Sharpton Tuesday at a press conference at City Hall, said prosecutors should stop making pot arrests altogether. They cited a council analysis of police statistics that found 86 percent of people arrested for public pot smoking in the most populous U.S. city were black or Hispanic.
“Whites, blacks and Hispanics all smoke pot at the same rate, so why are so many more people of color being arrested?” Johnson said. “This is not really going to end until marijuana is legalized and taxed and regulated.”
Johnson, a Manhattan Democrat who became speaker in January, has been pressuring de Blasio to support several issues he has been resisting, including subway and bus discounts for the poor and public disclosure of police discipline. The speaker and Sharpton both compared the impact of pot arrests on minorities with past police stop-and-frisk street tactics, which de Blasio attacked five years ago as a candidate.
“I am disappointed that there is racial disparity in arrests, as I have been and was in the leadership on stop-and-frisk, and I want to see it corrected,” Sharpton said, responding to a reporter’s question about de Blasio’s attitude toward the issue.
Johnson said a council analysis showed that in a predominantly black and Hispanic precinct in Red Hook, Brooklyn, the city received 88 complaints of public pot smoking and police made 246 arrests. In mostly white Breezy Point and the lower Rockaways, there were 113 complaints and only 22 arrests, he said.
“It shows the enormous disparity that exists precinct by precinct, neighborhood by neighborhood,” Johnson said.
De Blasio’s stance has been out of step with a majority of the council, and with U.S. Senators Charles Schumer and Kirsten Gillibrand.
Councilman Ruben Diaz Sr., for one, opposes legalization, and said he believes it can be a gateway drug to more dangerous substances.
“If you go to the street, most drug addicts, they started with marijuana,” said Diaz, a Democratic council member from the Bronx. “When you hit that, you want more and more. We always do things to protect the criminals. We need to start protecting the common, regular people.”