Pubdate: Tue, 05 Jun 2012
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2012 The New York Times Company
Author: Thomas Kaplan


ALBANY - The New York Police Department, the mayor and the city's top 
prosecutors on Monday endorsed a proposal to decriminalize the open 
possession of small amounts of marijuana, giving an unexpected lift 
to an effort by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to cut down on the number of 
people arrested as a result of police stops.

Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, whose Police Department made about 50,000 
arrests last year for low-level marijuana possession, said the 
governor's proposal "strikes the right balance" in part because it 
would still allow the police to arrest people who smoke marijuana in public.

The marijuana arrests are a byproduct of the Police Department's 
increasingly controversial stop-and-frisk practice. Mr. Bloomberg and 
police officials say the practice has made the city safer, but, 
because most of those stopped are black or Hispanic, the practice has 
been criticized as racially biased by advocates for minority communities.

The support expressed by Mr. Bloomberg, prosecutors and police 
officials is likely to carry significant weight in the Republican-led 
State Senate, which is the key obstacle to passage of the bill in 
Albany during this year's legislative session. Mr. Cuomo has amassed 
a strong track record of winning passage of legislation he embraces, 
and the speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, joined him at his 
news conference Monday, indicating that the Democrat-controlled 
Assembly would back the measure. The Republican Senate leadership has 
traditionally opposed legislation it views as soft on criminals.

Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, framed the issue as one of racial justice as 
well as common sense, saying that the police in New York City were 
wasting time, resources and good will making tens of thousands of 
unnecessary arrests. Possession of small amounts of marijuana is a 
crime only if the marijuana is in public view or if it is being 
smoked in public, but many of the marijuana possession arrests have 
been occurring when the police order someone stopped to empty his or 
her pockets, making the marijuana visible - a phenomenon the governor 
called an "aggravated complication" of the stop-and-frisk practice.

"It becomes a question of balance," the governor said of the city's 
police stops. "Part of the balance is the relationship with the 
community. I think the N.Y.P.D. and the mayor are making efforts to 
work with the community."

The governor's announcement was cheered by lawmakers from minority 
neighborhoods as well as by civil rights groups, who are increasingly 
looking to Albany and to Washington in an effort to rein in what they 
see as overly aggressive tactics on the part of the Bloomberg administration.

Black leaders also cited the governor's proposal as a rare 
recognition of - and attempt to remedy - what they describe as a 
cultural and legal double standard: that young African-American men 
are being arrested in large numbers for an activity - using marijuana 
- - that is prevalent, but with less frequent legal consequences, among 
whites of the same age.

"Some of our police officers are making race-based discretionary 
decisions on who they're going to arrest for low-level marijuana 
possession," said Leroy Gadsden, the president of a branch of the 
National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in 
Jamaica, Queens, and the chairman of the criminal justice committee 
for the statewide N.A.A.C.P. "Therefore, of course, if you're a 
young, black male, even a female, you're going to feel that you're 
being targeted when you notice that your white counterparts are not 
being arrested for the same thing."

The Rev. Al Sharpton praised Mr. Cuomo's proposal as "a step in the 
right direction" in curbing what he described as racial profiling by 
the Police Department. And Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, a Brooklyn 
Democrat who has pushed legislation to end low-level marijuana 
arrests, said, "It cannot be criminal behavior for one group of 
people and socially acceptable behavior for another group of people, 
where the dividing line is race."

A spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg rejected the notion that the Police 
Department acted with racial bias in arresting people for marijuana possession.

Under Mr. Cuomo's proposal, the state would downgrade the possession 
of 25 grams or less of marijuana in public view from a misdemeanor to 
a violation, with a maximum fine of $100 for first-time drug 
offenders. It is already a violation to possess that amount without 
putting it into public view.

In September, facing growing pressure over the marijuana arrests, 
Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly issued a memorandum clarifying 
that the police were not to arrest people who take small amounts of 
marijuana out of their pockets after being stopped. A city spokesman 
said that low-level marijuana arrests had fallen by nearly a quarter 
since then.

Mr. Bloomberg, whose administration had previously defended low-level 
marijuana arrests as a means of deterring more serious crimes, said 
on Monday that Mr. Cuomo's proposal was consistent with Mr. Kelly's 
directive. Mr. Kelly made a rare trip to the Capitol to join Mr. 
Cuomo at the news conference as a way of demonstrating the city's 
support for the governor's proposal.

"This law will make certain that the confusion in this situation will 
be eliminated," Mr. Kelly said, adding, "Quite frankly, it will make 
the application of this law much clearer."

Mr. Cuomo said changing the law was a better approach in the long 
term, saying, "I think it puts the police in an awkward position to 
tell them, enforce some laws, don't enforce other laws."

"This is nice and clean: change the law, period," the governor added.

The five district attorneys in New York City also endorsed the change 
in the law on Monday. The Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance 
Jr., said that half of the 6,200 people who were charged with 
low-level marijuana possession last year in Manhattan had never been 
arrested before.

"This simple and fair change will help us redirect significant 
resources to the most serious criminals and crime problems," Mr. 
Vance said. "And, frankly, it's the right thing to do."

But one Republican, Senator Martin J. Golden of Brooklyn, expressed 
concerns. He said that the enthusiasm among some lawmakers and 
advocacy groups for Mr. Cuomo's proposal was "all about 
stop-and-frisk," and, citing several young people in his district who 
had died of prescription drug overdoses in recent months, questioned 
the message it would send to young people about drug use.

Noting the 25-gram threshold for Mr. Cuomo's proposal, he said, 
"That's a lot of pot, my friend."
- ---
MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom