Brooklyn D.A.’s weed decriminalization plan is a game changer

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The borough of Brooklyn, New York has a new chief prosecutor, and if he has his way, there will be no more charges for possession of small amounts of marijuana.  And the move could have a profound impact on young black men.

In his inaugural address, Ken Thompson, the first African-American district attorney elected in Brooklyn, and the second in the state, has vowed to end the prosecution of low-level marijuana arrests.  During his run for D.A., Thompson pledged not to prosecute people arrested for under 15 grams of pot, issuing a $100 fine instead.

Noting that the criminal justice system is clogged with thousands of such cases, D.A. Thompson pointed to a report finding that blacks in Brooklyn are 9 times more likely to be arrested for weed possession than their white counterparts.  And of the 12,000 low-level marijuana arrests made in Brooklyn in 2012, he noted that these were mostly young black men.  “I not only want to keep Brooklyn safe, I want to protect the future of our youth,” he added.

Thompson is getting to the heart of the problem with the war on drugs and the costs of drug prohibition to poor communities, particularly communities of color.  Does it take a black prosecutor to understand the current drug policies are racially skewed and only serve to criminalize young black and Latino men?  Certainly not.  But at the same time, there needs to be some sensitivity in the criminal justice system, with the actors in that system—such as Ken Thompson— reflecting the makeup of the communities they serve.

District attorneys have the discretion when it comes to who to prosecute, from drug possession all the way up to capital murders that are eligible for the death penalty.  And it is worth noting that while African-Americans are 14 percent of all drug users, reflecting their overall representation in the U.S. population, they are 37 percent of people arrested for drug offenses.  People of color are 30 percent of the population and 60 percent of the prisoners—black men alone are 40 percent of the nation’s prison population—yet black prosecutors are in single digit percentages.

Over the past decade, the NYPD spent a million hours making 440,000 low-level marijuana arrests under the so-called “stop-and-frisk” policy.  In 2012, blacks and Latinos were 87 percent of those arrests.  Certainly, New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose son Dante fits the demographic of young men who have been stopped, searched, harassed and humiliated by the police for years, campaigned on ending the practice.

Meanwhile, President Obama has helped set the tone nationwide by signaling a shift on marijuana.  “Middle-class kids don’t get locked up for smoking pot, and poor kids do,” the president said in a recent interview with The New Yorker. “And African-American kids and Latino kids are more likely to be poor and less likely to have the resources and the support to avoid unduly harsh penalties,” Obama added. “We should not be locking up kids or individual users for long stretches of jail time when some of the folks who are writing those laws have probably done the same thing.”

“I don’t know that Obama’s increasingly supportive stance toward legalization represents a sea change in his own personal philosophy – he’s an African-American former law professor who has to know prohibition is destructive to people of color and to the criminal justice system generally,” said Neill Franklin, executive director of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition. “But it does show the political calculus is changing and smart leaders are scrambling to be counted on the right side of history.”

At over 2.5 million people, Brooklyn is the largest borough of New York City, and ground zero for the “stop-and-frisk” practice.  Ken Thompson’s decision to decriminalize marijuana could make him a role model for other prosecutors across the nation.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove