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New York City might stop arresting people for low-level marijuana possession. Here's why.

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio didn't stop racially skewed marijuana possession arrests.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio didn't stop racially skewed marijuana possession arrests.
Andrew Burton / Getty Images News

The New York City Police Department will begin issuing tickets and court summons, instead of arrests, for low-level marijuana possession, the New York Times reported. The change could represent a massive shift for a city that, even under Mayor Bill de Blasio, increasingly fell under public scrutiny for huge racial disparities in low-level marijuana possession arrests.

Various questions remain about the proposal, including what the threshold will be for tickets or summons and whether a lit marijuana joint will be treated differently than possession of a packet of pot. But the shift signifies that de Blasio's administration is taking a new approach to the issue.

De Blasio campaigned on ending racially skewed marijuana arrests in New York City. But a previous report found New York City had actually arrested more people for low-level marijuana possession under de Blasio, perhaps prompting the mayor to take the issue more seriously and take a significant step toward reform.

In a report released on October 20, the Drug Policy Alliance found arrests for low-level marijuana possession were actually higher, compared to 2013, in every month but one (May) from March to August. And black and Hispanic New Yorkers made up more than 86 percent of marijuana possession arrests during the first eight months of 2014. White people account for nearly 71 percent of the city's population and surveys show white Americans are similarly likely to use and sell drugs.

NYC marijuana arrests

(Drug Policy Alliance)

The report also found class didn't explain the disparities between minority and white New Yorkers:

One might think that neighborhoods with similar social class or family incomes would have similar rates of marijuana arrests, but that is not necessary the case.

Consider three Queens neighborhoods with very similar median family incomes. In Flushing (pct 109) the median family income is $58,000; in Fresh Meadows (pct 107) it is $58,000, and in St. Albans and Springfield Gardens (pct 113) it is $59,000.

Flushing, with only 19% black and Latino residents, has a marijuana arrest rate of 89 per hundred thousand residents. Fresh Meadows is 32% blacks and Latinos and has a rate of 96 marijuana arrests.

But the St. Albans neighborhood is 93% black and Latino residents and has a marijuana arrest rate of 396 – four times that of Flushing and over three times that of Fresh Meadows. For marijuana arrests in these NYPD precincts with nearly identical family incomes, race trumps class.

About 56 percent of those arrested were under the age of 26. The report also indicated that 89 percent of the arrested were never convicted for even a misdemeanor prior to their marijuana possession arrest: "74 percent of the people arrested for marijuana possession in 2014 have never been convicted of even a single misdemeanor, and only 11 percent have a misdemeanor conviction."

Marijuana has been technically decriminalized in New York state since 1977, but cops are allowed to arrest people who show marijuana in public view. Before a federal court deemed most stop-and-frisk searches unconstitutional, police would stop people for a search, get them to empty their pockets, and expose marijuana to public view to justify an arrest. The Drug Policy Alliance's report suggests similar tactics are still taking place after the end of stop-and-frisk.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo in 2012 proposed closing the public view loophole in the state's decriminalization law. But Cuomo dropped the plan this year, citing the end of stop-and-frisk as an indication that the reform was no longer necessary.

To learn more about marijuana policy, read Vox's card stack on legalization and breakdown of the states that could legalize pot this year.