- guardian.co.uk, Monday 4 June 2012 22.28 BST
New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD commissioner Ray Kelly have backed legislation proposed by governor Andrew Cuomo that would reduce the penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana in public view from a crime to a misdemeanor.
Cuomo’s proposal is an attempt to reduce the number of people exposed to a criminal charge as a result of the city’s controversial stop-and-frisk tactic, which has seen a massive increase in the number of stops over recent years.
The issue has emerged as major point of contention as the city prepares for an upcoming mayoral race and has prompted a federal class action lawsuit. Both Bloomberg and Kelly have staunchly defended stop-and-frisk, which they say deters gun violence.
Under existing New York state law, possession of small amounts marijuana – 25 grams or less – is a misdemeanor, while burning, smoking or holding marijuana in public is a criminal offense. In the course of police stops subjects are frequently asked to empty their pockets.
“There’s a blatant inconsistency,” Cuomo said in a press conference Monday afternoon. The governor’s address focused heavily on the impact the current law has on minority youth. Cuomo said a change in the law “long overdue”.
Last year the number low-level marijuana arrests in New York City totalled 50,684, more than any other offense. Over 50% of those arrested were under 25 years of age and 82% were either black or Hispanic. Less than 10% were ever convicted of a crime.
“Those numbers are telling and those numbers are stark,” Cuomo said, noting that low-level marijuana arrests often have detrimental impacts on the lives of young people who otherwise have clean records.
Cuomo’s proposal would make the penalty for possessing small amounts of marijuana in public the same as possessing an equal amount in private, punishable by a maximum fine of $100. Burning or smoking marijuana in public would remain a crime.
“The complication with stop and frisk aggravates the situation,” Cuomo said. “I think this is an issue that people get.”
The governor denied that his proposal was intended to reduce the overall number of stops and called the practice a “well-accepted police strategy”. He added, however, “I think this will actually help the stop-and-frisk” situation.
Cuomo was joined at the conference by Commissioner Kelly, who voiced his support for the recommendation. “I think it’s a balanced approach,” he said.
In September, Kelly issued an operations order commanding his officers not to charge individuals whom they stopped with a crime if they presented small amounts of marijuana at the officer’s request. A six-month study of over 500 low-level marijuana arrests commissioned by the Bronx Defenders – an organization of public defenders – found that the number of arrests in violation of Kelly’s order increased after it was issued.
Kelly said Cuomo’s proposal “comports to the spirit of the operations order”. The commissioner added: “Mayor Bloomberg totally supports this legislation. He hope it passes in this session, as do I.”
In the past, Bloomberg has resisted efforts to curb marijuana arrests but a statement from the mayor’s office released before Cuomo’s press conference said: “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.”
Manhattan district attorney Cyrus Vance also attended Monday’s press conference and offered his support for the governor’s proposal, arguing it would alleviate a “drain” on city resources.
“This is just an application of common sense,” Vance said.
The governor’s announcement follows months of intense debate surrounding NYPD stop-and-frisks, which critics say has created a two-tier system of justice that favors white New Yorkers and targets minorities, particularly young men.
Civil rights attorneys, drug policy reform advocates and legal experts – who argue efforts at policing marijuana plays a crucial role in driving the number of stop-and-frisks – said Cuomo is taking a crucial step in the right direction but were quick to add that their efforts to reform NYPD stop-and-frisk policy are hardly over.
“This will not for a minute reduce the concerns and the criticisms regarding the NYPD’s out of control stop-and-frisk policies,” said Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberites Union. “We applaud it but we know better than to pack up our advocacy tools and go home as a result of this.”
Robin Steinberg, executive director of the Bronx Defenders, echoed Leiberman’s statement.
“Obviously the problem of stop-and-frisk will continue and needs to be monitored very, very closely but it certainly is a very positive first step towards ending what is not just an unlawful practice, but one that has devastating consequences for poor communities.”
Gabriel Sayegh, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), a non-partisan drug policy reform organization, believes the governor’s recommendation is a move towards racial justice. The DPA adopted marijuana arrests in New York as primary campaign two years ago and has since worked with numerous legislative officials – including Governor Cuomo – on adopting alternative drug policy strategies.
“This is a great sign and it’s a potentially game-changing development in the effort to reduce racially biased arrests for marijuana possession in the city of New York,” Sayegh, who noted that punishment for marijuana possession does not comport with the populations known to most frequently use the substance.
“Young white people, in particular young white men, are consistently shown in government research to use marijuana at higher rates than do young black or Latino men but you wouldn’t know that by who’s being arrested for these offenses,” he said.
Despite being decriminalized in 1977, Sayegh says police in New York City and around the state have maintained a “de facto” criminalization of marijuana in communities of color.
“You got these young people that are 17 years old, 18, 19, get caught up, get this criminal charge and then it follows them forever. They’re doing a lot of the same behavior that everybody from our own president, Barack Obama, to our sitting mayor, Michael Bloomberg, have admitted doing,” Sayegh said.
“The law has to apply to everybody equally and the consequences of an arrest should not be disproportionate or different from one community to the other if the only dividing line is race. And that’s what we have and that’s what’s been happening unfortunately,” Sayegh said.
“The thing’s not done yet. We’re not going to run a victory lap until there’s an actual victory but that said, Cuomo’s engagement here can’t be understated.”
- New York police officers defy order to cut marijuana arrests (talesfromthelou.wordpress.com)
- Protestors Challenge NYC Mayor on Mass Marijuana Arrests (talesfromthelou.wordpress.com)