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How New York Pot Smokers Are Getting Bold And Toking Up Outside

By Keri Blakinger 12/18/15

A recent New York Times story explored the growing phenomenon.

man smoking joint outside.jpg

Even though recreational cannabis isn’t legal in New York State (yet), New York City residents are lighting up like it is—outside and in the open.

A recent New York Times piece reported that pot smokers, spurred by the legalization victories in other states, have increasingly been lighting up on the streets. Although a number of smokers said they’d seen an increase in outdoor smoking, the paper reported that it’s difficult to make a definitive determination about whether, or how much, that behavior is on the rise, in part because NYPD data doesn’t distinguish an arrest for possession from an arrest for street smoking.

There’s good cause to believe that smokers might at least feel more comfortable coming out in the open. Last year, Mayor Bill de Blasio and NYPD Commissioner Bill Bratton announced that they’d no longer be arresting people for possessing less than 25 grams of pot and they’d used their discretion in deciding whether to even issue a ticket.

As per Bratton’s statement, arrests have gone down. While last year saw 26,000 arrests for criminal possession of marijuana in the fifth degree, this year saw only 12,500 by the end of September.

Even though the mayor said there would be fewer arrests, outdoor smoking can still carry a penalty. Having a lit joint is a misdemeanor that can lead to up to 90 days in the clink.

As the Times reported, reactions to street smoking differ greatly. Some New Yorkers think it’s awful, while other take it all in stride. A Queens College sociology professor, Harry G. Levine, said that race may be a factor in how easy it is to get away with it and how acceptable it seems—89% of possession of marijuana in the fifth degree arrestees were black or Hispanic during 2015, while just 8% were white.

“Somebody who grew up and has lived most of their life in a largely white area, is used to having the police ignore this behavior,” Levine said. “Then they come to the big city, and it’s: ‘Woo woo woo! It must be more liberal here!’"

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Keri Blakinger is a former drug user and current reporter living in Texas. She covers breaking news for the Houston Chronicle and previously worked for the New York Daily News and the Ithaca Times. She has written about drugs and criminal justice for the Washington Post, Salon, Quartz and more. She loves dogs and is not impressed by rodeo food. Find Keri on LinkedIn and Twitter.

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