Cannabis smell is no longer cause to search, but advocates still have concerns
On a normal Tuesday evening, the government complex in downtown Binghamton would be fairly quiet. Most office workers and public servants go home, leaving the concrete jungle vacant.
But this past Tuesday, the scene was different. It was April 20, or 4/20, the official unofficial marijuana holiday. This is the first 4/20 since New York legalized adult-use of recreational marijuana last month, and a few hundred people showed up to celebrate.
Since smoking marijuana is essentially legal anywhere one can legally smoke a cigarette, many participants decided to do it in the street in front of the Binghamton Police Department. Organizers wanted to highlight the effect marijuana prohibition and policing has had on communities of color.
In 2018, Binghamton police charged 18 people with the lowest level offense for marijuana possession, according to data provided by the Drug Policy Alliance. Of those charges, a third were levied against Black or African American people, despite the same demographic only making up 12 percent of city residents.
Still, 18 possession charges in a year is relatively few for a city of around 47,000 residents.
Alexis Pleus, Director of Truth Pharm, a Southern Tier-based organization focused on substance abuse harm reduction, said police have not been making as many low-level marijuana arrests in recent years because prosecutors are less interested in pursuing those cases. What does not show up in that data, Pleus explained, is how often police use the smell of cannabis as justification to conduct a search.