Pubdate: Tue, 05 Jun 2012
Source: Times Union (Albany, NY)
Copyright: 2012 Capital Newspapers Division of The Hearst Corporation
Author: Jimmy Vielkind


Governor Backs Bill That Decriminalizes Holding Small Amounts of Drug

ALBANY - If the governor gets his way, you could roll a joint in 
public without facing arrest. Taking a puff, though, would still get 
you cuffed.

Surrounded by prosecutors from three big counties, prominent 
African-American legislators and New York City Police Commissioner 
Ray Kelly, Gov. Andrew Cuomo announced support Monday for a bill that 
would decriminalize the public possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The governor cast the proposal as a balancing act that, rather than 
driving toward significantly broader decriminalization, simply mends 
a "blatant inconsistency" in the existing law that has emerged as an 
"aggravated complication" of the controversial NYPD policy known as 
"stop and frisk."

Currently, someone who keeps less than 25 grams of marijuana in his 
pocket can simply be charged with a non-criminal violation punishable 
by a $100 fine.

"But if you show it in public, it's a crime," Cuomo said - meaning 
arrest, detention and fingerprinting. "The effect of a criminal 
conviction on a young person can alter the trajectory of your entire life."

It would remain an arrestable, criminal offense to smoke marijuana in 
public. Just over 53,000 New Yorkers were charged with misdemeanor 
pot possession in 2011, according to statistics kept by the 
Department of Criminal Justice Services. Ninety-four percent of the 
arrests occurred in New York City, and 82 percent of those arrested 
were black or Hispanic.

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties 
Union, said the numbers were the result of a "hyper-aggressive 
crusade" by the NYPD's stop-and-frisk program. Often, she said, 
officers would "tell people to empty their pockets, they'd pull 
marijuana out, and what would have been a summons for a violation 
would become a misdemeanor."

Kelly said officers were specifically instructed not to do this last autumn.

The policy has been a significant political issue for black 
legislators such as Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, D-Brooklyn, who 
claim their constituents are being unfairly targeted.

"The statute as currently written unnecessarily subjects tens of 
thousands of people to unnecessary prosecution," he said. "It cannot 
be criminal behavior for one group of people and socially acceptable 
behavior for another group of people when the dividing line is race."

Law enforcement officials in the Capital Region, though, shrugged off 
the proposed change.

"You've either have it in your pocket or you're smoking it," said 
Colonie Police Lt. Bob Winn. This year, his department has written 
101 tickets for UPM - unlawful possession of marijuana - which 
summons the accused to a court date, similar to the process for a 
traffic ticket. Colonie officers charged 20 people with low-level 
misdemeanor marijuana possession, he said, of which almost all were 
for public smoking.

DCJS statistics for 2011 showed 47 arrests for misdemeanor possession 
in Albany County, eight in Rensselaer County, four in Saratoga County 
and one in Schenectady County.

"Typically it's charged as UPM. You don't see a lot of marijuana 
arrests," said Rensselaer County District Attorney Rich McNally. "If 
it's going to remedy a problem, it's going to remedy it in the big 

Cuomo's support will no doubt give the proposal a boost, and it 
should sail through the Democrat-dominated Assembly without issue.

It faces a more uncertain fate in the Republican-controlled Senate. 
Majority Leader Dean Skelos, R-Long Island, told reporters he would 
take a look at the bill. Neither he nor any other Republican attended 
Monday's news conference.

The Legislature's last scheduled session day is June 21.

Monday's announcement, Cuomo said, does not indicate executive 
support for legalizing medicinal marijuana.


By the numbers

53,125 The number of people arrested statewide in 2011 for 
misdemeanor marijuana possession in public view.

10% Those arrested who had a previous criminal conviction.

Arrests in 2011 for misdemeanor marijuana possession in public view 
in the five boroughs of New York City. For the breakdown by ethnic 
group see D7:





Queens 7,746

Staten Island1,582

Source: State Department of Criminal Justice Services


Arrest record

in 2011 for misdemeanor marijuana possession in public view in the 
five boroughs of New York City - by race:

Black Hispanic White Asian/Indian NA Total

Brooklyn 11,785 3,382 1,593 349 104 17,213

Bronx 5,970 6,106 483 91 122 12,772

Manhattan 4,078 4,195 1,943 177 94 10,487

Queens 3,326 2,350 1,230 699 141 7,746

Staten Island 587 75 874 36 10 1,582

Source: State Department of Criminal Justice Services
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom