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What Does 25 Grams of Weed Look Like, Anyway?: A Guide to NYC’s New Marijuana Policy

NEW YORK, NY - NOVEMBER 10: New York City Police Commissioner Bill Bratton holds up a bag of oregano to demonstrate what 25 grams of marijuana looks like at a news conference to announce changes to New York's marijuana policy on November 10, 2014 in New York City. The commissioner and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the city will start giving out tickets (and court summons) rather than arresting people for possession of 25 grams of marijuana and under. The new guidelines for officers will result in hundreds of less arrests per year, freeing up the police to focus on other crimes. It will also free those caught with the drug from having a damaging arrest record. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Photo: Spencer Platt/2014 Getty Images

On Monday afternoon, NYPD Chief Bill Bratton and Mayor de Blasio announced that the police will be taking a new approach to the enforcement of New York’s marijuana laws. Starting on November 19, people caught with up to 25 grams of weed in New York City “may be eligible” for a ticket, instead of being arrested, fingerprinted, and potentially forced to sit in jail for hours before being arraigned. This sounds good, but what does it actually mean? Let us explain!

Isn’t marijuana already decriminalized in New York?
Sort of, but it doesn’t seem that way (especially if you are black or Latino). The 1977 Marijuana Reform Act says that possession of up to 25 grams of concealed weed should only result in a ticket. However, the NYPD has long skirted that rule by forcing people to bring their pot into “open view” by demanding that they, say, empty their pockets. Once the marijuana is exposed, its owner is subject to arrest. Stop-and-frisk — which, as you may know, was disproportionately applied to men of color in the city’s poorer neighborhoods — made full use of that loophole

I’m American, so I don’t understand the metric system. How much pot is 25 grams of pot?
Twenty-five grams is equal to .88 of an ounce, so it’s a decent amount of pot (about $300 worth). “To give you a sense of what 25 grams of marijuana would look like, that’s about it,” Bratton said as he held up an almost-full, standard-size Ziploc bag of what he was sure to point out was oregano. “All I can think of right now is pizza, because I usually like oregano on my pizza,” he added. 

Under the new policy, what will happen to a person caught with, say, 24 grams of pot?
The cops will take the pot. In exchange, they’ll give the pot’s owner a fine of around $100 (for a first offense) and an order to appear in court later. It shouldn’t result in a criminal record.

There are exceptions to this, right?
While Bratton said that the new policy applies to weed that is in open view (a big shift), it does not apply to weed that is being burned. People caught  smoking weed will continue to be arrested. (It’s also still probably not a great idea to wave your bag around in public, regardless of its size.) Pot-possessors with outstanding warrants will be taken into custody, as will people who can’t show I.D.“An officer ultimately has to make the judgment on the scene,” said de Blasio, suggesting that people whom the cops deem suspicious or uncooperative might also be subject to arrest.

Who stands to benefit from this?
Anyone walking around New York City with a small about of weed, in theory. But the policy change will be most profoundly felt in New York’s black and Latino communities, where 86 percent of low-level marijuana arrests take place, despite the fact that white people buy and smoke pot at roughly the same rate as anybody else. During some years of the Bloomberg administration, as many as 50,000 people were arrested over small amounts of marijuana. Those arrests have decreased recently, but there have still been 24,000 so far this year.

Getting arrested is expensive and, as de Blasio noted, a criminal record can affect a person’s ability to get a student loan, a job, or an apartment. The new rule is intended to prevent lives from being ruined because someone did something that is commonplace in the United States (smoke pot). De Blasio also pointed out that the NYPD can now devote more time and resources to serious crimes.

How will we know if the policy is working?
Unclear. Unlike arrests records, summons forms don’t note the race of the offender, so it could be difficult to see whether black and Latino people are still being disproportionately targeted. “It doesn’t make sense to allow a situation where we go from having gross racial disparities in arrests to gross racial disparities in summonses,” said Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance.

Who is unhappy about the policy change?
People who are worried about pot-smoking becoming even more normalized (certain parents, et cetera), and some cops. From the New York Daily News:

I think it’s sad,” countered Sergeants Benevolent Association President Ed Mullins. “I think this is the beginning of an avalanche. Basically, what he’s doing is equating an illegal substance to a parking ticket.”

Pat Lynch, president of the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association, said they want clarity from the top for their membership.

“Anything less will result in our members being held responsible for a failed policy by a discipline-obsessed police department and the multiple levels of police oversight it has,” Lynch said in a statement. “We do not want police officers left holding the bag if crime rises because of poor policy.”

Bratton, for his part, said that while some law enforcement officials might be unhappy with the change, there will be “no not enforcing” the new policy.

Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, who recently effectively decriminalized pot in the borough by following through on a campaign promise to stop prosecuting minor marijuana violations, also has some concerns. From the New York Times:

The new policy could push prosecutors out of the process, because summonses issued without an accompanying arrest generally do not receive prosecutorial review.

In order to give the public confidence in the fairness of the criminal justice system, these cases should be subject to prosecutorial review,” Mr. Thompson said. “By allowing these cases to avoid early review, by issuing a summons, there is a serious concern that many summonses will be issued without the safeguards currently in place. These cases will move forward even when due process violations might have occurred.”

Additionally, Thompson pointed out that the tickets could easily turn into arrest warrants if people don’t pay their fines or fail to show up in court.

Is this a sign that recreational marijuana will be legal in New York soon?
It’s hard to say, but probably not. Though polls show that most New York residents support legalization, the decision would ultimately be left to state legislators, who tend to be skittish about drugs. While the legislature and Governor Andrew Cuomo did agree to legalize medical marijuana in New York earlier this year, Cuomo has called recreational weed a “nonstarter.”

How does Bratton feel about marijuana legalization?
He is not in favor of it “under any circumstance,” he said.

What about de Blasio? He seems like he’d be down.
He says he isn’t for it, but, ehhh …

A Guide to NYC’s New Marijuana Policy