This person would probably be in jail if they were black and in NYC.
This person would probably be in jail if they were black and in NYC. Getty Images

This Saturday I was hitting a vape pen and scrolling through Twitter when I saw something that shocked me—a New Yorker was in jail for doing what has become so nonchalant for us Seattleites.


Scott Hechinger, a public defender in Brooklyn, told me that the man was “standing outside a store in the middle of the afternoon” hitting a vape pen when NYPD swooped in and arrested him. Because New York law defines cannabis concentrates, but not “marihuana,” as a schedule I substance the local prosecuting attorney gave the man a misdemeanor possession charge and booked him in jail.

And in terribly unsurprising news, the man was black. Three months after NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio made headlines promising his police department would slash marijuana arrests the city clearly still uses pot as a way to drag people of color into the criminal justice system.

Hechinger’s colleague was able to negotiate the charge down to a non-criminal citation which will be removed from the man's record if he stays out of the criminal justice system for the next six months. But one misstep will land this case on his criminal record, and even if he manages to avoid a harassing cop for six months this one incident still dragged him through the criminal justice system. Hechinger said the man spent 22 hours in jail waiting to see a judge.

“During that time, he was approached, stopped, searched, frisked, cuffed, taken to the precinct, fingerprinted, held in a cell, brought to central bookings, held in another cell overnight, brought to criminal court, held in another cell until my colleague received the paperwork from the court and interviewed him, he was brought out to court in shackles, his retinas were scanned, and then brought up in front of a judge only to have the case effectively dismissed,” Hechinger told me in an e-mail.

De Blasio’s pledge to slash marijuana arrests did not apply to people with past arrests or convictions, which is reinforcing the systemic biases of the criminal justice system. Hechinger said people of color are still being targeted because their police still overwhelmingly target their communities.

“The policies themselves maintain exceptions for those who have certain criminal records and others who are on parole, without any conceivable justification other than to punish those with prior criminal justice involvement more harshly and hold them to a higher standard than others,” Hechinger said.

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Hechinger said if de Blasio really believes that pot shouldn’t be criminalized he should further reform the policies.

“My position is that if you believe that marijuana should not be criminalized, that marijuana enforcement has had a disproportionate impact on people of color living in certain heavily policed neighborhoods, and that marijuana enforcement is far too costly to justify any perceived benefits, those same concerns should apply to everyone, no matter your criminal justice history,” Hechinger said.

So while I will continue to point out how pot legalization in Washington has failed some disadvantaged communities, it’s worth remembering that we are at least a few years ahead of our country’s largest city.