Legal New York Pot Means New Police Strategy

New York police may soon have cannabis removed from their oversight.

Axel Bernabe, assistant counsel to Governor Andrew Cuomo, said at last week’s Prohibition Partners conference that he’d recommend alternatives such as using social workers when coordinating with the state’s nascent Cannabis Control Board, which will soon lay out a framework for legalized recreational marijuana. New York State recently decided to allow recreational use and the board will soon decide on the details.

“The interaction of law enforcement with individuals around drugs is a big, big part of the bill,” Bernabe said of the state’s new legislation, under which recreational sales are expected in about a year. Bernabe said he thought that other states’ use of social case workers to enforce rules for legal, licensed cannabis businesses is a good idea. He also questioned who would deal with cannabis-related street crimes, such as the selling of unlicensed, black-market marijuana.

“Who’s going to interact with folks on the street, or folks that are selling illicitly?” Bernabe said. “Do we want law enforcement to do it? Is it a new form of law enforcement?”

New York’s dilemma on how to reform is playing out across the U.S. as local governments start to re-think criminal justice systems that disproportionately incarcerate Black men for marijuana possession. These policy decisions could determine how much interaction minorities like Black people have with police.

Efforts to rework how law enforcement deals with cannabis must also be balanced with how to combat the illegal market, which often still involves criminal groups, and the sale of other drugs like cocaine or heroin.

Underage cannabis use is another issue that policy makers are grappling with. It’s expected that fines will be used to deter those under age 21 from using marijuana. But Bernabe asks: “Who’s going to administer that fine?”

The New York City Police Department said new marijuana laws have created “sweeping changes” to its enforcement of marijuana offenses. A spokesperson detailed key changes to the law, but didn’t comment specifically on the idea that other authorities might police cannabis. The U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency declined to comment.

Bernabe’s fellow panelist was Emily Galvin Almanza, a founder of the Partners for Justice advocacy group that helps low-income people navigate the legal system. She said that there’s a conversation around whether to use social workers, mental health professionals or community members who are trained to defuse confrontations.

Bernabe said some states have turned to former law enforcement officers to oversee licensed cannabis operations, but there’s a growing sense that among experts that this may not be the best option.

“They found that relying on human services, on the mental health professionals, on former social case workers” was better. “I thought that was a brilliant idea. That’s something we’ll take to heart and recommend to the board,” he said.

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