New York will join more than a dozen states in decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana displayed in public if the state Legislature approves a proposal made Monday by Gov. Andrew Cuomo.
At an Albany news conference, Cuomo, a Democrat, called for changing the state law to make possession of 25 grams of marijuana — whether in public or private – punishable by a fine. Currently having at least 25 grams on public view is a misdemeanor, though having the same amount in private is just a violation.
Civil libertarians have long criticized the difference in approaches, which they contend discriminates against minorities and the young. A person could have a small amount of marijuana in his or her pocket and be charged with no more than a violation. But if ordered by a police officer to empty that pocket, the marijuana would be on public display and the suspect could face a misdemeanor charge.
According to state statistics, more than half of the 53,000 people arrested last year were younger than 25, and 82% were black or Latino. Less than 10% were ever convicted of a crime, Cuomo stated.
Moreover, 94% of the arrests took place in New York City, where a stop-and-frisk policy has become a sore point in relations between police and the minority communities.
“Today’s announcement is about creating fairness and consistency in our laws since there is a blatant inconsistency in the way we deal with small amounts of marijuana possession,” Cuomo said in a statement. “This is an issue that disproportionately affects young people — they wind up with a permanent stain on their record for something that would otherwise be a violation. The charge makes it more difficult for them to find a job. Together, we are making New York fairer and safer, and ensuring that every New Yorker has access to justice system that doesn’t discriminate based on age or color.”
Cuomo’s proposal would not change the status of smoking marijuana in public; that would remain a misdemeanor.
If the measure were approved, New York would be following in the footsteps of such states as California and Connecticut, which have taken similar action. New York in 1977 made the penalty for privately possessing 25 grams or less of pot a violation that carries a maximum fine of $100 for first-time offenders. An ounce is about 28 grams.
New York City officials backed Cuomo’s proposed changes, saying in a statement that they follow police practices instituted last year.
In a statement, Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg noted:
“Last year, Police Commissioner [Raymond] Kelly issued a policy order directing officers to issue violations, rather than misdemeanors, for small amounts of marijuana that come into open view during a search. The governor’s proposal today is consistent with the commissioner’s directive, and strikes the right balance by ensuring that the NYPD will continue to have the tools it needs to maintain public safety – including making arrests for selling or smoking marijuana.”
For his part, Kelly stated: “The proposed legislation takes a balanced approach and comports with the spirit of the NYPD operations order issued on the subject last year. Further, the department’s ongoing quality of life enforcement is supported by preserving the penalties for smoking marijuana in public.”