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By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times

NEW YORK — Possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana no longer will be grounds for arrest in New York City under a new policy aimed at ending the lifelong stigma that can follow pot users, city officials announced Monday.

The new law, which takes effect Nov. 19, marks a substantial shift in policing in the nation’s largest city, where arrests for marijuana possession so far this year number more than 24,000. But both Mayor Bill de Blasio and Police Commissioner William J. Bratton said the policy change was not a sign they favored going the route of Colorado and Washington state, which have legalized some recreational marijuana use.

“It’s still against the law,” said Bratton, who held up a small plastic bag filled with oregano to demonstrate the maximum amount that a person could be caught with in New York City and avoid being arrested. “I’m not giving out ‘get-out-of-jail-free’ cards.”

De Blasio, a staunch liberal, also made clear he opposed marijuana legalization. “Any substance that alters your consciousness is a potential danger,” de Blasio said.

Under the new law, a person who is carrying 25 grams or less of the drug and not smoking it would be issued a summons rather than being arrested, taken to a police station, fingerprinted and photographed. Bratton said under some circumstances, a person could still face arrest. That could occur if the person with the marijuana was wanted on an outstanding warrant or if he or she was unable to provide identification to police.

A first offense would bring a fine of up to $100. Subsequent offenses could carry fines up to $300.

De Blasio said the shift was in keeping with his pledge to improve relations between the police and the city’s African-American and Latino communities, who were disproportionately affected by the department’s stop-question-frisk practices. Many of those stops led to arrests for small amounts of marijuana.

The mayor said such arrests often had “disastrous consequences” for individuals with otherwise clean records.

“When an individual is arrested even for the smallest amount of marijuana, it hurts their chances to get a good job. It hurts their chances to get housing. It hurts their chances to qualify for student loans. It can literally follow them the rest of their lives,” de Blasio said.

Bratton said the police department was hurt by the arrests too because it forced officers to spend “endless hours” in courtrooms while cases were prosecuted. “I don’t want them chasing down 25-gram bags of marijuana and tying themselves up in court,” he said.

The announcement came on the same day that new FBI crime statistics showed a drop in nationwide marijuana arrests in 2013. According to the FBI, 693,058 marijuana arrests were made last year, compared with 749,842 in 2012.

In a statement, a spokesman for the Marijuana Policy Project, Mason Tvert, said the drop in arrests was a positive step, but Tvert said it was wrong to arrest even one person for “using a substance that is objectively less harmful than alcohol.”

“Every year we see millions of violent crimes attributed to alcohol, and the evidence is clear that marijuana is not a significant contributing factor in such incidents,” Tvert said. “Yet our laws continue to steer adults toward drinking by threatening to punish them if they make the safer choice.”

AFP Photo/Frederic J Brown

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