04/25/2014 05:06 pm ET Updated Apr 25, 2014

Why Brooklyn Is Taking A Major Step Toward Marijuana Reform

Spencer Platt via Getty Images

Alfredo Carrasquillo and a friend were smoking cigarettes in the hallway of a Harlem housing project last summer when two police officers appeared out of nowhere and ordered them to put their hands against the wall. When the cops searched Carrasquillo’s pocket, they found a little weed -- enough to roll a few joints. It was also enough to ensure he spent the weekend in jail and ended up with a misdemeanor on his record.

Carrasquillo told a version of this story on the steps of Brooklyn Borough Hall Friday morning, surrounded by politicians and drug-law reformers. The crowd had gathered there to applaud a major development in New York City drug politics: In a confidential memo obtained by The New York Times, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson told Police Commissioner Bill Bratton earlier this month that he will stop prosecuting people found with small amounts of pot.

One reason is so that “individuals, and especially young people of color, do not become unfairly burdened and stigmatized by involvement in the criminal justice system for engaging in nonviolent conduct that poses no threat of harm to persons or property,” Thompson explained, according to an excerpt of the memo that appeared in the Times on Wednesday.

At the rally, Carrasquillo said he hoped Thompson’s decision would inspire others to make similar moves. “We hope that other DA's will follow Brooklyn's lead,” he said. “And we hope the NYPD is listening.”

Every year, thousands of people are arrested in New York for possessing 25 grams or less of marijuana, a misdemeanor that can result in jail time. Although these arrests have dropped sharply in the past two years, critics say they’re still too common. Last year, 29,927 people were arrested in New York City for marijuana possession, according to data provided to The Huffington Post by the New York state Division of Criminal Justice Services.

Under a 1977 state law, possession of a small amount of marijuana is only punishable by an arrest and jail time if the drug is in “public view.” But civil liberties advocates say the police often get around this rule by forcing suspects to empty their pockets, which is illegal. Former New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly directed officers to stop this practice three years ago, but critics say it continues.

Carrasquillo was joined on the Borough Hall steps by a procession of local leaders, including Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams. “If you walk through any community in Brooklyn, you can smell marijuana,” he said, “yet the only place the laws were enforced were in the black and brown areas.”

Indeed, black people are nine times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana possession in both Brooklyn and Manhattan, according to a 2013 report from the New York Civil Liberties Union. Brooklyn and Manhattan have the highest racial disparities in the entire state when it comes to arrests for marijuana.

Last year, the New York State Assembly passed a bill aimed at reducing these racial disparities; it would have made possession in public view a violation punishable by a fine, instead of an arrest.

The bill eventually died in the state Senate. But Assemblyman Karim Camara, the bill’s lead sponsor, told the crowd in Brooklyn on Friday that he hoped Thompson’s policy could lend some momentum to a renewed push for statewide reforms. “We’ll be able to say it started in Brooklyn,” he said.



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