Advocates of marijuana reform have seen better than imagined success in recent years. With legalization victories in Washington and Oregon, what would the next step be for New York City? There have also been efforts in New York State to decriminalize small portions of marijuana for personal use, but those died in the NY senate.
While a welcome step in the right direction, decriminalizing marijuana in New York City would only marginally benefit users by preventing them from being incarcerated. It will do nothing to stem the problems that arise from prohibition because the illegal drug market will remain the only source of marijuana. Legalization provides the same benefits without keeping the entrenchment of a violent and unsafe industry.
In a point of agreement between the two candidates, the next Mayor of New York City, Bill de Blasio, and Republican candidate Joseph Lhota both have expressed favorable views on legalizing marijuana, and have admitted smoking it. This bodes well for the prospects of loosening the current laws, which are a bit peculiar. In September 2011, New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly stated that, "A crime will not be charged to an individual who is requested or compelled to engage in the behavior that results in the public display of marijuana." Basically, it means if a cop tells you they need to see your ID, and you pull out your wallet and drop some weed on the ground, you can’t be charged with possession.
This did cause a drop in the arrests for marijuana, and in 2013 arrests are on pace to decline 20%. One of the primary causes of marijuana arrests was the unconstitutional Stop and Frisk law, which unfairly targeted minorities. In 2011, 87% of people who were stopped under the law were either African American or Hispanic. It has been long understood that the War on Drugs disproportionately affects said minorities, but the goal of Stop and Frisk was to cut down on gun violence. This policy was senseless and ineffective, as 98% of frisks did not find any weapon. It is a prime example of failed methods of enforcing gun control while violating civil liberties.
The only real benefits from decriminalization are specifically for users. People who use marijuana would have less to fear for using a drug that is in every way far less dangerous than legal things like alcohol or cigarettes and less addictive than caffeine. It would benefit them in the sense that they wouldn’t be locked up and have their lives ruined from a non-violent drug conviction. Unfortunately, that’s where the benefits end for the most part.
The problem in legalization vs. decriminalization is that decriminalization does nothing to solve the problems that are created by a black market. Whenever there is a market that is under prohibition, everyone loses except for those who are able to be violent and gain an economic benefit from the illegal drug trade. This includes government institutions like the ATF or the grotesque prison system, whose existence subsists on marijuana and other drugs being illegal. It affects consumers economically, driving prices up and creating criminals out of nonviolent users.
Legalization doesn’t force anyone to do anything. It lets people control their body what they want, and to seek treatment openly if they have a problem. It would sure be a quantum leap from Mayor Bloomberg, under whose lordship we will soon depart. From 2007-11, Lord Bloomberg’s army arrested more people for marijuana than in the 24 years and three mayors before his reign. The Nanny-in-Chief has been terrible on marijuana policy, so the next mayor will be better by default. If they need advice on legalization, there are successful models like Portugal.
The next mayor should do the responsible thing, and push for full on legalization marijuana. Doing anything less would continue the suppression of minorities and continue the negative impacts of the War on Drugs on the great city of New York.