More Than 3,000 Open Marijuana Cases To Be Dismissed In New York

By Paul Gaita 09/21/18

The legal move stops short of expunging the pot-related cases.

Man holding the scales of justice

In what's been described as an action "in the interest of justice," Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance has vacated more than 3,000 outstanding warrants for cannabis consumption and possession, some of which date back to 1978.

The decision will only impact misdemeanor and violation cases where a warrant was issued because the defendant did not appear in court. Vance announced the "decline to prosecute" policy for possession and smoking cases in late July, with the goal of reducing such prosecutions to fewer than 200 per year.

Vance dropped 3,042 open cases of marijuana possession—but as High Times noted, this stops short of expunging these cases. 

Vance's decision applies only to open cases where misdemeanor possession or use was the "only remaining charge," and the defendant did not appear in court. It does not apply to sale or distribution cases, or any case in which the defendant was convicted. 

Still, the dismissal of these cases would have several positive outcomes: it supports the implementation of new policy for the NYPD regarding misdemeanor marijuana cases, which has shifted from arrests to court summonses (or "weed tickets), which went into effect this month.

It also seeks to address what Vance described as "decades of racial disparities behind the enforcement of marijuana in New York City."

According to his office, 79% of the dropped cases involve individuals of color, and nearly half of those were 25 years of age or younger at the time of their arrest.

Additionally, it may remove some of the obstacles that individuals with open warrants may face, such as applying for jobs or housing. Background checks in both cases may reveal an open warrant and impact the individual's chances, and may even affect applications for citizenship.

"By vacating these warrants, we are preventing unnecessary future interactions with the criminal justice system," said Vance at a press conference after declaring his motion. "We made the decision that it is really in the interest of justice."

The move is also in the interest of freeing up what Vance called the "burden" of backlogged cases that drain resources his office needs for more serious charges.

In July, Vance said that the policy was expected to reduce marijuana prosecutions in Manhattan from approximately 5,000 per year to fewer than 200—a reduction of 96%.

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Paul Gaita lives in Los Angeles. He has contributed to the Los Angeles Times, Variety, LA Weekly, and The Los Angeles Beat, among many other publications and websites.