In addition to frivolous new gun restrictions, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo yesterday recommended legislation that would accomplish something worthwhile and long overdue, reining in police officers who defy state law by arresting pot smokers caught with small amounts of marijuana. "It's not fair," Cuomo said in his State of the State speech. "It's not right. It must end, and it must end now."
As Cuomo explained, the state legislature decriminalized possession of up to 25 grams in 1977, making it a violation punishable by a $100 fine. But possessing marijuana "in public view" remained a misdemeanor, punishable by up to three months in jail. Police in New York City routinely convert the former offense into the latter, justifying arrests by instructing people they stop to reveal any contraband they may be carrying or by removing it themselves in the course of a pat-down. Although New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly concedes this practice is illegal, court records and reports from defense attorneys show that it continues, which is why Cuomo last year endorsed abolishing the distinction between mere possession and public display. Yesterday Cuomo reiterated his support for that reform, which was blocked last year due to opposition by Republican legislators.
Cuomo noted that arrests for public display of marijuana have skyrocketed during the last few decades:
In the first full year of enforcement of the separate "open view" marijuana law, there were 514 arrests for the crime. Today, police arrest 100 times more people for this offense, and these arrests comprise the single largest category of arrests in New York City, accounting for 15 percent of all NYC arrests and 20 percent of NYC misdemeanors.
A table included in Cuomo's prepared remarks shows the number of such arrests has increased especially rapidly since the mid-1990s, rising from 4,310 statewide in 1994 to 53,124 last year. New York City accounted for 94 percent of those pot busts in 2011. More than four-fifths of the arrestees were black or Hispanic, even though survey data indicate that whites are at least as likely to smoke pot. Last year 72 percent of the people arrested on this charge had no prior criminal record. And even though only about 10 percent of these cases end with a conviction, Cuomo noted, that doesn't mean they are no big deal:
Arrest has consequences that persist after release. There is the humiliation of arrest and, in some cases, detention during processing. More enduring is the stigma of the criminal records that can have lasting and deleterious effects on the young person's future. A "drug" arrest can have a significant impact on a person's life and key decisions made by employers, landlords, licensing boards and banks.
This situation clearly is not what the legislature had in mind back in 1977, when it declared:
Arrests, criminal prosecutions, and criminal penalties are inappropriate for people who possess small quantities of marihuana for personal use. Every year, this process needlessly scars thousands of lives and wastes millions of dollars in law enforcement resources, while detracting from the prosecution of serious crime.
Cuomo's proposal is to treat possession of up to 15 grams "in public view" the same as concealed possession of up to 25 grams. The lower limit looks like an attempt to allay the anxieties of drug warriors like Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican who last year warned that decriminalizing public display would allow people to "just walk around with 10 joints in each ear." If only Republicans were as eager to follow Cuomo's lead on this issue as they are to go along with his dubious gun control agenda.
[I have corrected the time-warped reference to Cuomo's father.]