Cuomo Seeks Decriminalization of Small Amounts of Marijuana

Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed a measure meant to reduce the number of people arrested for marijuana possession after they’ve been detained under the New York City Police Department’s so-called stop-and-frisk policy.

Cuomo, a 54-year-old Democrat, said today at a news conference in Albany that he wants legislators to decriminalize possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana that’s in public view. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said he supports the change.

About 94 percent of the more than 50,000 arrests last year in the state for 25 or fewer grams of marijuana were in New York City, and 82 percent of those arrested were black or Hispanic, the governor said.

“This is about creating fairness and consistency in our laws,” Cuomo said. “The problem is the law, and the solution is to change the law.”

Cuomo’s initiative would put New York among more than a dozen states that have taken similar action, including California and Connecticut. A bill that would decriminalize possession of 15 grams (0.5 ounces) or less of marijuana was approved by a New Jersey Assembly committee last month.

New York’s Legislature in 1977 reduced the penalty for possessing 25 grams or less of pot to a violation that carries a fine of as much as $100 for first-time offenders. It’s still a misdemeanor if the drug is viewed in public, which happens when someone is asked to empty his or her pockets during a police stop.

The governor’s decriminalization plans were first reported today by the New York Times. (NYT)

‘Right Balance’

Bloomberg backed the governor’s proposal, citing a Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly’s order in September that officers issue violations to people with small amounts of marijuana rather than make arrests.

Cuomo’s initiative “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,” Bloomberg said in a statement.

Under Cuomo’s proposal, smoking marijuana in public would remain a misdemeanor.

City police have made stopping residents on the street and searching them a cornerstone of crime prevention.

Searching Citizens

Last year, the New York Police Department stopped and interrogated people 685,724 times, an increase in street stops of more than 600 percent since Bloomberg’s first year in office, according a report by the New York Civil Liberties Union. Nine out of 10 people stopped were innocent, meaning they were neither arrested nor ticketed. About 87 percent were black or Latino, according to the organization.

Cuomo’s proposal would reduce the effect of those stops on people whose records are scarred by the convictions, Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said today in a telephone interview.

“We hope this would reduce the incentive for NYPD to continue its out-of-control stop-and-frisk campaign,” Lieberman said. “We will continue to call for major reform until stop- and-frisk is reined in.”

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver, a Manhattan Democrat, said he supports the law change. Scott Reif, a spokesman for Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, declined to comment.

The mayor is the founder and majority owner of Bloomberg News parent Bloomberg LP.

To contact the reporter on this story: Freeman Klopott in Albany at fklopott@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story: Stephen Merelman at smerelman@bloomberg.net

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