Responding to the bogus pot busts associated with the NYPD's stop-and-frisk program, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo is urging the state legislature to decriminalize the "public display" of marijuana. Although possessing up to 25 grams (nearly an ounce) of marijuana has been a citable offense similar to a traffic violation in New York since 1977, having marijuana "burning or open to public view" remains a Class B misdemeanor, justifying an arrest. Research by Queens College sociologist Harry Levine indicates that New York City police commonly convert the former offense into the latter by instructing people they stop to remove any contraband they have from their pockets or bags (or by removing it themselves in the course of a pat-down ostensibly aimed at discovering weapons). "Now it's in public view," Levine explains to The New York Times. "If you go by the police reports, all around New York City, there are people standing around with their palms outstretched with a bit of marijuana in them."
As Police Commissioner Ray Kelly acknowledges, this practice of manufacturing misdemeanors is illegal, but it continues despite his September 2011 directive telling cops to cut it out. Cuomo therefore is backing legislation that would curtail such trumped-up charges by treating small amounts of cannabis the same whether they're concealed or in public view. Under Cuomo's proposal, unlike a bill introduced by Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn) and state Sen. Mark Grisanti (R-Buffalo), smoking pot in public would remain a misdemeanor, though one that's a little harder to fake.
A spokesman for Cuomo says "this proposal will bring long overdue consistency and fairness to New York State's Penal Law and save thousands of New Yorkers, particularly minority youth, from the unnecessary and life-altering trauma of a criminal arrest and, in some cases, prosecution." He adds that it would avoid "countless man-hours wasted" on arrests and prosecutions "for what is clearly only a minor offense." Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, notes that pot arrests impose a lasting burden even when the charges ultimately are dropped or dismissed (as usually happens):
For individuals who have any kind of a record, even a minuscule one, the obstacles are enormous to employment and to education. When it's really a huge number of kids in the community who go through this, and all have the same story, the impact is just devastating.
The bogus busts are especially outrageous because the stops that precede them, which supposedly are justified by "reasonable suspicion" of recent, ongoing, or imminent criminal activity, may be illegal as well.
Update: New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, who before presiding over a surge in marijuana arrests cheerfully confessed to smoking pot and enjoying it, has endorsed Cuomo's proposal, claiming it is consistent with current policy, which is not really true. Yes, Kelly officially instructed his underlings that they should not charge people with public display when marijuana is revealed due to police intervention. But he did so only after years of intensifying criticism, apparently to head off Jeffries and Gristani's bill, and he showed a distinct lack of curiosity when arrests fell only slightly after he issued his directive. Even in backing Cuomo's proposal, which will still let cops bust people for smoking pot in public, Bloomberg defended his anti-pot crusade:
Thanks to the NYPD, our city has come a long way from the days when marijuana was routinely sold and smoked on our streets without repercussions. By preventing these crimes, and targeting police resources to where they are needed most, we have cut crime by 35 percent over the past decade.
Bloomberg thus attributes the entire drop in crime since he took office not only to his administration's efforts but specifically to his marijuana crackdown. Yet somehow cities that were less zealous about arresting marijuana offenders experienced similar or bigger reductions in crime during the same period.