In the first quarter of 2021, before legalization took effect, New York City saw 163 arrests for marijuana possession. Police arrested people both for holding quantities of marijuana that were decriminalized back in 2019 (under two ounces), and for quantities that were over the decriminalization limit. (When Cuomo signed a bill to decriminalize marijuana possession in July 2019, it meant that anyone caught with up to two ounces could be given a fine of up to $200 and not arrested.)
People still being arrested for quantities no longer considered criminal may seem absurd. But police were still given much discretion and latitude. People apprehended by police without identification, or those who were not New York residents, could still be arrested. And if police suspected someone of selling marijuana in any amount, they could arrest them.
Demographically, over 90 percent of people arrested were Black or Latinx, and nearly all were men. Over 80 percent were age 34 or under. These numbers reflect the targeting that we have seen for years in New York and many other jurisdictions.
When New York State finally legalized, it followed years of failed efforts to do so in the legislature. Upon Cuomo’s signature, marijuana possession was immediately much more broadly decriminalized . Adults over 21 could now possess up to 3 ounces of cannabis flower in public. And adults could smoke marijuana in public—anywhere tobacco use is also permitted.