DA Vance Testimony on Marijuana Law Reform

June 12, 2012

Good afternoon Chairman Vallone and members of the Public Safety Committee. My name is Cyrus R. Vance, Jr., and I am the District Attorney of New York County. Thank you for this opportunity to submit written testimony with regard to Resolution 986-A, which supports Governor Andrew Cuomo’s proposal to amend the Penal Law to make possession of a small quantity of marijuana in public view a violation rather than a misdemeanor; applauds the Speaker of the Assembly for his support of the proposal; and calls upon the New York Senate to pass legislation enacting the same.

Last Monday, I stood with Governor Cuomo, Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and my fellow district attorneys in New York to express our support for a thoughtful solution to the issues surrounding arrests for the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The most important job of the District Attorney is to enhance public safety while maintaining an unwavering commitment to the fair and just administration of the law. But one of the challenges we face, especially in these times of limited resources, is to make sure that we are focusing our resources on the most violent criminals and significant crime problems, and in the smartest and fairest way possible.  In Manhattan, we work closely with the community and the NYPD, through what we call “intelligence-based prosecution,” to focus on the criminals and organizations that cause a disproportionate amount of violence in our communities.

Working with the NYPD, for example, we are identifying and dismantling some of the most violent drug trafficking crews in Manhattan. Internally, our bureau-based projects focus on specific strategies to drive down crime, and our Violent Criminal Enterprises Unit focuses on dismantling violent crews and drug organizations. These efforts, both within the office and in partnership with other law enforcement agencies and the community, continue to be a critical priority.

That is why I support Governor Cuomo’s proposed changes to the laws governing possession of marijuana. This simple and fair change will help us redirect significant resources to the most serious criminals and crime problems.

Under the current law, if an individual possesses a small amount of marijuana outside his pocket, he can be charged with a misdemeanor. But if that same amount of marijuana is inside his pocket, he can be charged with a violation, a non-criminal offense. The consequences for someone who possesses a small amount of marijuana should be the same, whether the marijuana is in a person’s pocket or in his hand.

Last year, 6,170 people were charged with open to public view criminal possession of marijuana in Manhattan. Half of these individuals had never been arrested before, and approximately 46 percent were 16 to 24 years of age. Many of these defendants were held in jail before they were arraigned before a judge, a cold introduction to the criminal justice system. A first-time arrest for a small amount of marijuana should not trigger a young person’s incarceration or subject them to a criminal record.

The human costs to each one of those people and their families is serious, and it is real. It could affect an individual’s ability to secure a job or receive admission into an academic or training program. The consequences of this can be devastating for a young man or woman starting out in life. It can also impose a financial burden on someone forced to miss days of work to appear in court.

Furthermore, the drain of resources in our office and the NYPD to process those 6,000 cases is significant. The proposed law will allow us to redirect resources away from processing people charged with simple low-level possession of marijuana and use those valuable resources to fight violent crimes, to make all of our communities safer. This is just an application of common sense and fundamental fairness.

I do not make this recommendation lightly — fighting drug crime, particularly drug markets, in New York is a top priority of my office, and a leading concern among residents and community leaders.

Those of us in law enforcement are striving to strike the right balance between public safety and fairness. Resolution 986-A is an important step toward achieving that balance.