Bad timing: End to pot prosecutions comes too late for many

NEW YORK (AP) — They might be the unluckiest pot smokers in New York.

Saying the government's war on marijuana has hit minorities too hard, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. said last month that his office would stop prosecuting people for simple possession or public use of the drug as of Aug. 1. But that midsummer start date comes too late for the people still being dragged into court on the charge now.

College student Allain Laporte, 24, was pinched by police in April for smoking marijuana on a bench in Union Square.

"I had no idea there were two undercover detectives across from me who waited till I almost finished the joint," he said. "They came up to me, confiscated the joint, patted me down, put handcuffs on my wrists and brought me to the precinct. It was embarrassing."

He was fingerprinted, photographed for a mug shot and put into a cell, barefoot, before being released.

On May 21, Laporte faced a judge with a lawyer from the Legal Aid Society at his side. His case was handled like most minor marijuana possession charges in New York City courts these days: The case was postponed, and if he has no further legal trouble for six months, the charges will be dismissed and the case sealed.

Still, Laporte said he resented the experience, and felt that if he were white, he wouldn't have been arrested in the first place.

"I feel as if it's unfair to me, because based on my race, or even my gender — I'm a male African-American — I just felt as if I shouldn't have gotten arrested for a minor misdemeanor such as smoking marijuana," he said.

Laporte's court appearance came six days after Vance, citing evidence of racial disparity in marijuana enforcement, announced that he will largely stop prosecuting people for possessing or smoking marijuana in August except for a few cases involving "public safety concerns." His office said it expected marijuana prosecutions in the borough from roughly 5,000 per year to about 200.

"The dual mission of the Manhattan DA's Office is a safer New York and a more equal justice system," Vance said in a statement. "The ongoing arrest and criminal prosecution of predominantly black and brown New Yorkers for smoking marijuana serves neither of these goals."

On the same day, Mayor Bill de Blasio, a Democrat, said the city's police department would be overhauling its marijuana arrest policies. Brooklyn's district attorney said he would also reduce prosecutions to a very small number.

And a task force created by Gov. Andrew Cuomo is also considering whether or not to propose legalizing marijuana for recreational use. For now, only medical marijuana is legal in New York, under strict rules with licensed sales.

Cuomo's leading opponent in the Democratic primary, Cynthia Nixon, supports legalization.

Meanwhile, Hector Rodriguez is angry that he's still caught in the old enforcement system.

"Hopefully in August, marijuana smokers won't have to go through this nonsense," Rodriguez, 38, a corporate chef with no criminal record, said after leaving a court appearance on a marijuana charge late last month. "There's rapes and murders. Go save a life, officer; why are you bothering me for marijuana?"

He was stopped by police in March for having a lit joint while walking with a friend through Greenwich Village.

In court, the judge waived fines and court charges that could have totaled $150, but, as with Laporte, any other encounter with a police officer in the next six months could get him arrested.

Nearly 90 percent of about 18,000 people charged last year with marijuana possession are New Yorkers of color, while evidence suggests use of the drug is generally not higher among African-Americans and Latinos than among whites, said Jared Chausow, the senior policy specialist at Brooklyn Criminal Defenders, which offers free defense attorneys.

The big question now, he said, is how much police and prosecutors will follow through on their public pronouncements that fewer people will be arrested.

"It's the difference between policy and practice," Chausow said.

New York state Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, a Bronx Democrat, said Wednesday that if the state legalizes recreational marijuana, it should consider expunging the criminal records of people with past convictions for using the drug.

"If we're going to get to the point that it's going to be legal, why should people still have trouble getting jobs and have a record for something that is legal?" he said.

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