Recently, Rochester members of the Start Smart NY Coalition released a brief titled, “Call to Action: Marijuana Policy Reform in the City of Rochester & Monroe County.” The brief detailed large racial disparities in arrests for low-level marijuana possession in Rochester and Monroe County. The disparities in the brief show that marijuana arrests in Rochester are a microcosm for how marijuana prohibition serves as the engine for the US’s war on drugs nationwide. This “war on drugs” has created a national crisis of mass incarceration justified and driven by racism, and Rochester is the fifth best example in New York State for how marijuana prohibition fuels that crisis. The war on drugs needs to end, and our communities deserve restoration and justice. That is why as members of Start SMART New York, Metro Justice and Roc NORML are immensely disappointed in Monroe County District Attorney Sandra Doorley's statements against marijuana legalization in a recent article published by WXXI about the findings of the brief.
The consequences of a marijuana arrest can be devastating: it creates a permanent criminal record that can have negative effects on employment, housing, school loans, credit agencies, banks, adopting children, immigration, and more -- whether or not the arrest results in jail time. Ostensibly waged to fight “violent crime,” the war on drugs has instead waged violence against communities of color, depleting those communities of their loved ones and livelihoods for nonviolent drug offenses.
To combat the war on the drugs and redress its harms in a way all New Yorkers benefit, the Start Smart NY Coalition has been pushing for racially and economically just marijuana legalization in New York through the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act. We have an opportunity to regulate the marijuana market and create a $1.7 - $3.5 billion industry that focuses on local businesses and creates total employment between 30,700 and 43,400. We have the opportunity to regulate the marijuana market so that millions in potential new tax revenue can be used to improve our communities and redress harms from the drug war. Meanwhile, existing consumers get to make informed purchases in safe environments.
Rather than supporting justice and economic opportunity in our county, however, DA Doorley’s comments to WXXI perpetuated the same erroneous fear-mongering that is used justify a war on drugs that disproportionately targets people of color. In hercomments, DA Doorley expressed that she supports decriminalization for personal use rather than legalization because there is an association between violence and dealers with large amounts of marijuana. When asked to totally stop prosecuting for low-level marijuana possession, DA Doorley responded that her office seeks an Adjournment Contemplating Dismissal (ACD) for most low-level possession charges, indicating that this was enough to serve justice until decriminalization.
We find DA Doorley’s arguments against legalization dubious and inadequate for justice. DA Doorley fails to acknowledge that low-level marijuana possession has been decriminalized in New York since 1977; yet arrests, charges, and harmful consequences continue statewide because of a loophole in the policy in which “private possession” is a civil violation and “public view possession” is a misdemeanor that can lead to arrest. This distinction has allowed police to target communities of color for searches -- either as a stop-and-frisk or a demand that the person empty their pockets and other belongings -- thereby bringing any marijuana in their private possession into public view. Furthermore, an ACD only dismisses charges if the defendant has no criminal charges filed against them in the following 6 to 12 months. During that period, the case remains open and visible to prospective employers, landlords, and other entities that may do background checks and deny opportunities because of the charge.
Lastly, the vast majority of drug arrests in the US are for nonviolent offenses, specifically possession. States that have legalized marijuana, like Washington and Colorado, have in fact experienced higher crime clearance rates and decreased trafficking since lifting their marijuana prohibitions. For example, a report from the U.S. Sentencing Commission found that marijuana trafficking cases have significantly declined since states started repealing prohibition. There were just over 2,100 federal marijuana trafficking cases in 2018, compared to nearly 7,000 in 2012, when Colorado and Washington became the first states to legalize cannabis but hadn’t yet implemented their programs. Furthermore, in a report published last year on legalizing marijuana, Manhattan’s District Attorney Cy Vance said, “"In short, these arrests waste an enormous amount of criminal justice resources for no punitive, rehabilitative, deterrent, or other public safety benefit. And they do so in a racially disparate way that stigmatizes and disadvantages the arrestees and causes significant anger and distrust of the police in a large segment of our community.”
The New York Department of Health, the Start SMART NY Coalition, and members of our communities have repeatedly presented data, personal stories, and policy solutions that show marijuana legalization can have drastic benefits for our economy and public health while delivering the reparations communities harmed by marijuana prohibition have deserved for decades. Marijuana prohibition has allowed the corporations and government agencies involved in the prison industry to profit from fuller jails, fuller prisons, and more militarized police on the backs of the suffering of hundreds of thousands of our people, especially people of color.
DA Doorley, we urge you to side with the wellbeing of all the residents of Monroe County instead. We urge you to support the MRTA, and to cease prosecuting for low-lowel marijuana possession immediately until its passage.
As for our Rochester community, we encourage you to join us for the last day of action of this legislative session on June 13, in Albany, to demand marijuana legalization and justice in New York State. We are the people of New York; therefore we have the power to win change for us, and that requires us to show up and take action. RSVP here to join us: https://www.metrojustice.org/join_the_final_push_for_marijuana_justice_this_year
Metro Justice and Roc NORML