ITHACA, N.Y. — Is writing and prosecuting marijuana tickets the best use of county resources? This is the question District Attorney Matt Van Houten posed to law enforcement last week during a meeting where they discussed how to “get on the same page” about violation-level marijuana offenses.
Van Houten said he met with law enforcement leaders from the Ithaca Police Department, Tompkins County Sheriff’s Office, Ithaca College Public Safety and Cornell University Police about the issue. Due to the severity of the violation-level tickets and their usual outcome in court — a dismissal — he is asking officers to consider whether it’s the best use of county resources to write the tickets.
“In terms of the level of offense that this involves and the use of officers’ time and the real community safety outlook for this, there’s no tangible risk to community based on possessions of small amounts of marijuana in my opinion,” Van Houten said.
In New York, if someone is caught with less than 25 grams of marijuana, they can be charged with unlawful possession of marijuana, a violation with a maximum punishment of a $100 fine for first-time offenders. Locally, the charge is usually dismissed after six months as long as the defendant doesn’t incur any additional charges during that time.
Ithaca Police Chief Pete Tyler said the officers enforce the law but, like in any profession, have to pick and choose what to focus on.
“You could equate it to jaywalking. We don’t necessarily enforce every jaywalk (infraction) we see,” he said, but officers do regularly issue tickets for violation-level marijuana offenses.
In the City of Ithaca, minor marijuana possession has been de-prioritized since 2012.
Mayor Svante Myrick said in an editorial to the Times Union in 2012, “…I believe that New York should seriously consider legalizing marijuana; taxing it, and regulating it. That’s also why I have directed the Ithaca Police Department to focus on other issues that will more effectively protect the public. Between dealers of hard drugs and stopping violent crime, our officers have more important things to be focusing on than low-level marijuana offenses.”
Van Houten made it clear that he is not asking officers to not write tickets for unlawful possession of marijuana — it’s still illegal to have the drug for recreational purposes in New York — but he wanted to let officers know that the tickets are often dismissed in court but still take time and money to prosecute.
A court summons for the ticket means a judge, prosecutor, multiple court officers, at least one clerk and a defense attorney must appear for the proceeding. And that doesn’t include the time it takes for paperwork to be shared between police officers, lawyers, and court officials.
Van Houten stressed that the proceedings for the offenses are serious, but the outcome doesn’t impact people’s lives the way a misdemeanor or felony would.
While he’s not exactly sure how many unlawful possession of marijuana tickets go through the DA’s office within a specified time frame, he had about 10 open cases for it at the Lansing Justice Court last week, which is the town court he covers in addition to felony cases at county court.