By Jennifer Peltz
NEW YORK — Police in the nation's largest city will soon stop booking and arraigning many people arrested on low-level marijuana-possession charges amid debate over the tens of thousands of such arrests each year, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said Thursday.
Starting next month, people who get picked up on charges of having a small amount of marijuana will be released with desk appearance tickets if they have identification and no open warrants, Bloomberg said, spotlighting the issue in his State of the City address. Now, many are formally booked and sent to court, a process that can take 24 to 36 hours.
"It's the right thing to do, and it will allow us to target police resources where they're needed most," Bloomberg said, adding that he continues to back a push to change state laws surrounding marijuana possession.
The change comes after several years of back-and-forth between the city and advocates for less punitive drug policies over the growing number of low-level marijuana arrests in the city in the past decade.
The announcement also comes amid what many observers see as a nationwide trend toward legalizing recreational marijuana use. In November, voters in Washington and Colorado approved decriminalizing and regulating possession of small amounts.
New York state has complicated laws surrounding small amounts of pot. Possession of less than 25 grams, or about 7/8 of an ounce, of the drug is a non-criminal violation and generates a ticket, not an arrest — unless it's "open to public view." Then it's a low-level misdemeanor and spurs an arrest.
That misdemeanor has been the most common arrest charge in the city for much of the past decade. More than 50,000 people were arrested on it in 2011 and 2010; figures for 2012 weren't immediately available Thursday.
Critics have said police manipulate people into getting arrested by telling them to empty their pockets or bags, and then arresting them when they pull out marijuana that's then publicly visible. Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly has said he didn't believe many arrests were made that way, but he sent around a memo in September 2011 reminding officers they couldn't do that.
Critics hailed the Bloomberg's announcement Thursday as a good step, while saying more needed to be done.
"With this new policy change, tens of thousands of people, mostly young men of color, will no longer be held in jail overnight for possessing small amounts of marijuana. But the arrests themselves need to end — period," said Gabriel Sayegh, the New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, a group critical of the national war on drugs.
Bloomberg said he would continue to back Gov. Andrew Cuomo's efforts to make possession of up to 25 grams of marijuana a violation even if it's in public view, though not if someone is publicly smoking it.
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Copyright 2013 Associated Press