In September 2011, New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly ordered all NYPD officers to stop charging people with misdemeanor marijuana violations based on improper searches. Although arrests have gone down, the directive didn’t yield meaningful results. Because the directive is not being followed by the NYPD, tens of thousands of people are still being unlawfully arrested for marijuana possession. Therefore, DPA and its allies are pushing for a permanent, statewide fix to the law. Since New York decriminalized small amounts of marijuana over three decades, possessing under 25 grams is only a criminal offense if it is publicly visible. Since the mid-1990s, officers have abused this legal loophole by tricking people – mostly young people of color – into publicly revealing marijuana concealed in a pocket or handbag by demanding they “empty their pockets." The police then make the arrest for “public view” for what should legally be a non-criminal civil citation. The policy directive came on the heels of a 2011 DPA report highlighting the enormous costs of marijuana arrests in New York and a public campaign led by the Drug Policy Alliance, VOCAL New York and the Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions to end these arrests.
In April 2009, Governor David Paterson signed legislation enacting real reform of the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws (RDL). The changes include eliminating mandatory minimums and returning judicial discretion in most (but not all) drug cases; reforming sentences; expanding drug treatment and alternatives to incarceration; and allowing resentencing of some currently incarcerated people who are serving sentences under the old laws.
With these reforms, New York can begin its shift away from a failed criminal justice model of drug policy and toward an approach guided by health and public safety.
On September 18, 2011, New York’s 911 Good Samaritan law went into effect. The law encourages people to call 911 immediately during an overdose situation by offering a limited shield from charge and prosecution of drug and alcohol possession for a victim or witness who seeks medical help during a drug or alcohol overdose. The bill was passed unanimously in the New York Senate and with only two “no” votes in the Assembly. In his signing statement, Governor Cuomo said “The benefit to be gained by the bill – saving lives – must be paramount.” DPA is now working with the State Department of Health to ensure that the public, service providers, and law enforcement know about the new law.
The syringe access legislation DPA and harm reduction advocates across NY State fought nearly two years for was signed into law in 2010. In a bi-partisan effort, and with large margins in both the New York State Assembly and Senate, the bill became law on July 30, 2010, and went into effect on October 30, 2010. The bill includes 3 components vital for effective syringe access programs: