It was a leading initiative of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s first year in office: policing the possession of small amounts of marijuana with summonses, not arrests.
At the news conference announcing the change in November, Police Commissioner William J. Bratton stood beside the mayor with an educational prop: He held up a bag of oregano measuring 25 grams, the summons threshold, inspiring tabloid front pages and a skit on “Saturday Night Live.”
Last week, at a gathering convened without the mayor, the commissioner turned the city’s attention to marijuana again, delivering a darker message: Homicides were up — to 54 through March 1, compared with 45 over the same period the year before. Shootings too. And marijuana, Mr. Bratton said, was a factor in the violence.
“The seemingly innocent drug that’s being legalized around the country,” he said. “In this city, people are killing each other over marijuana.”
The commissioner’s two appearances speak to the competing attitudes surrounding marijuana in the city, its use taken less seriously than before even as it is said to fuel crimes that Mr. Bratton compared to cocaine-related violence from the 1980s and ’90s.
Mr. de Blasio said he championed the new policy regarding low-level marijuana possession out of longstanding concerns that arrests for small amounts of the drug disproportionately affected black and Hispanic communities, in some cases derailing the job prospects of otherwise law-abiding residents.
While trade in marijuana and other illicit drugs has long been violent, law enforcement officials said, drug-related violence has ebbed in the city from the days when open-air markets and turf battles were commonplace and killings topped 2,000 a year. Mr. Bratton did not posit any connection between the recent homicides and the city’s new summons policy, which he has praised.
Yet there are few topics that highlight the distinct sensibilities of the mayor and his police commissioner as clearly as marijuana. The two men arrived at their municipal partnership with very different thoughts on, and experiences with, the drug.
Mr. Bratton, 67, noted in his memoir that he “disliked everything” about the 1960s. He lamented “hippiedom, Woodstock, the drug culture, the style of dress,” recalling peers who “wore beads, smoked marijuana and listened to antiwar rock and roll” while he was serving in Vietnam.
Mr. de Blasio, 53, in contrast, has at times appeared to treat the drug’s use with a wink. In January, he told reporters that he had last smoked marijuana while a student at New York University in the early 1980s. The next day, an image was posted to his Twitter account: “my N.Y.U. days,” the message read in part, beside a photograph of a bushy-haired Mr. de Blasio, staring vacantly, with his shirt partially unbuttoned.
While the mayor has stopped short of calling for full marijuana legalization, as some local officials have urged, he has said that similar policies in other states, like Colorado and Washington, bear watching.
Mr. Bratton has been less equivocal.
“I am a strong believer that it should not be decriminalized,” he said last spring, as the Brooklyn district attorney first floated the idea of relaxing the punishment for low-level possession.
Mr. Bratton’s assertions about marijuana last week drew immediate skepticism. Some legalization advocates even saw in Mr. Bratton’s dire descriptions of marijuana dealers killed in robberies an inadvertent endorsement of their own effort to bring marijuana out of the shadows. If the business were legal, advocates argued, sellers would no longer have guns or large amounts of cash.
It was not clear whether Mr. Bratton’s comments caught Mr. de Blasio off guard. The mayor’s senior adviser, Phil Walzak, demurred when asked if Mr. Bratton and Mr. de Blasio had discussed any connection between marijuana and homicide before the news conference.
“The mayor and the commissioner meet weekly to discuss crime statistics and patterns,” Mr. Walzak said, “and the commissioner has at various points described different issues that are driving shootings, or other crime trends, on any given week.”
Mr. Bratton’s latest remarks came amid what has been a shifting perception around marijuana in the city, according to both legalization advocates and law enforcement officials.
Marijuana advocates hope that such a perception reflects reality.
“We’re a little more relaxed at this point,” said Rick Cusick, the associate publisher of High Times.
The mayor’s office said there was no rationale for any perception that the city had begun taking marijuana less seriously across the board. Officials said the recent violence was connected to marijuana dealers, not those who might possess small quantities, noting that the city’s enforcement of marijuana distribution has not changed.
In an interview in December, Mr. de Blasio, a Democrat, praised Mr. Bratton’s attention to detail as they developed new policies, casting himself as a “hurry-up kind of guy” who benefited from the commissioner’s cautious voice.
“I was anxious to find a way forward,” the mayor said. “And he would say, ‘There’s a reason we have to construct it properly.’ ”
For the mayor, the issue is also personal. His daughter, Chiara, has said she abusedmarijuana and alcohol as a teenager, and has since emerged as a spokeswoman for recovery and mental health awareness.
For Mr. Bratton, marijuana use remains a sign of disorder and criminality.
The Police Department began focusing intently on the connection between marijuana and gun violence late last year and in early January, as Mr. Bratton sought to understand why shootings in the city were on the rise, said Stephen Davis, the agency’s top spokesman. An analysis of known motives behind the gunplay showed a connection to the drug, he said, and Mr. Bratton began talking about it in early February, at a news conference on monthly crime statistics.
His appearance last week was the second time he highlighted the connection, and he and his top officials did so vigorously, returning to the issue several times over the course of the news conference.
Marijuana was the motive behind at least seven killings in the first two months of this year, all of them violent robberies of drug dealers, according to one chart of homicide statistics. That number was unchanged from the same period last year.
“We just see marijuana everywhere when we make these arrests, when we get these guns off the street,” Mr. Bratton said at the news conference. The drug, he added, is “an influence in almost everything that we do here.”
Before appearing with the mayor, Mr. Bratton had wondered aloud during a meeting with his top aides what 25 grams of marijuana might look like. A plastic bag was fetched from the Narcotics Division, and then stuffed with an equivalent haul of oregano.
“I was surprised,” Mr. Davis said. “It looked pretty big.”