Pubdate: Wed, 20 Jun 2012
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2012 The New York Times Company
Authors: Thomas Kaplan and John Eligon


ALBANY - The Democrats who control the State Assembly, many of them 
black or Latino residents of New York City, saw a proposal to 
decriminalize the open possession of small amounts of marijuana as a 
simple matter of justice: too many black and Latino men were being 
arrested because, after being stopped by the police, they were forced 
to empty their pockets.

But the Republicans who run the State Senate, all of them white and 
most of them from suburban or rural districts, saw decriminalization 
differently: as an invitation for young people to use drugs and as a 
declaration that Albany was soft on crime.

"Marijuana still is a gateway drug to so many other much more 
dangerous things," said Senator John J. Flanagan, a Long Island Republican.

The differing life experiences, and worldviews, of lawmakers in the 
two chambers proved too much to overcome in the final days of this 
legislative session, and on Tuesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo declared 
his marijuana proposal dead.

Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, said: "You have old folks like me who say, 
'Whoa, the decriminalization of marijuana: What are you saying? 
Everyone is going to walk around smoking marijuana, and that's O.K.'" 
So I think the Senate got a lot of blowback, pardon the pun."

The demise of the proposal came amid a last-minute push to tie up 
loose ends before the close of the session, which is scheduled to 
conclude on Thursday. All legislative seats are on the ballot in the 
elections this year, and Republican senators have pointedly refused 
to take up several issues that are avidly sought by Democrats in the 
Assembly but that might upset conservatives, including the marijuana 
bill and a measure to raise the state's minimum wage.

Mr. Cuomo unveiled his marijuana proposal two weeks ago, promoting it 
as a way to end the high number of arrests that result from the 
stop-and-frisk practice of the New York Police Department. He 
immediately won the backing of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, as well as 
the department and prosecutors.

With the support of law enforcement, some Democrats and drug-policy 
advocates said they did not expect the Republican-controlled Senate 
to stand in the way.

"You have the governor of the state, the speaker of the Assembly, the 
mayor of the city, the police commissioner, all five D.A.'s from the 
city," said Harry G. Levine, a sociologist at Queens College who has 
studied the city's marijuana arrest practices. "It seemed like if 
this many powerful people said they wanted X, which wasn't that big a 
deal, it should be possible to do it."

But the collapse of the marijuana proposal illustrated an at-times 
awkward reality about the balance of power in Albany: Legislation 
eagerly sought by New York City can easily be torpedoed by lawmakers 
from upstate, even when the legislation largely affects only 
residents of the city.

The marijuana measure would have had an impact mostly on city 
residents because, of the more than 50,000 low-level marijuana 
arrests in New York State last year, 9 in 10 occurred in the city, 
according to state data.

In private discussions about the marijuana bill, Senate Republicans 
raised concerns about the amount of marijuana that Mr. Cuomo's bill 
would have allowed people to possess in public without being charged 
with a misdemeanor - 25 grams. By one calculation, that would produce 
63 marijuana cigarettes - one for each member of the Senate next 
year, as a Republican senator joked at a discussion of the proposal.

The Senate majority leader, Dean G. Skelos, a Long Island Republican, 
said Tuesday that it was possible the Senate would revisit the 
marijuana issue next year, and he denied that he felt political 
pressure to block the bill.

"All I know is my son was thrilled to see me on 'The Daily Show,' " 
Mr. Skelos said, referring to a television segment that lampooned his 
resistance to the measure.

But supporters of the marijuana proposal were not pleased. 
Assemblywoman Rhoda S. Jacobs, a Democrat who represents Flatbush, 
Brooklyn, said Republicans were blinded by ideology and ignoring the 
likelihood that their own constituents used marijuana. "Their posture 
and the way they are perceived is to be very law and order," she 
said. "Everybody who's got a college kid probably is turning a blind 
eye to the fact that kids are experimenting."

Mr. Cuomo, who has at times been accused of not paying enough 
attention to the concerns of black and Latino lawmakers, won 
widespread applause for tackling the marijuana issue and, in doing 
so, giving more public attention to the growing criticism of the 
Police Department's stop-and-frisk tactics.

But Assemblywoman Inez D. Barron, a Democrat representing East New 
York and parts of Canarsie and Brownsville in Brooklyn, said the 
governor had not pushed the issue vigorously enough in the past two weeks.

"It's not a critical issue to him, but it is for our communities, and 
we understand it," Ms. Barron said. "I believe that he's playing a 
game of trying to enhance his political stature by not pushing the 
Republicans. He doesn't want to expend a political favor by asking 
them to really come forth and support this bill."

Speaking to reporters on Tuesday, Mr. Cuomo argued that his marijuana 
bill was the kind of proposal, like same-sex marriage, that would 
take time to persuade lawmakers to support.

"Many of the large issues, social issues, they don't happen over a 
period of weeks," he said. "It takes a period of months, sometimes a 
period of years."
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MAP posted-by: Jay Bergstrom