NYC
12/11/2013 12:35 pm ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

New York Could Be Third State To Legalize Pot

First Washington and Colorado, and now -- maybe -- New York.

On Wednesday morning, New York state Sen. Liz Krueger, a Manhattan Democrat, unveiled a proposal to fully legalize and tax marijuana in the state.

At a press conference at City Hall in downtown Manhattan, Krueger denounced the prohibition of marijuana as a “policy that just hasn’t worked.”

“The illegal marijuana economy is alive and well,” she said, “and our unjust laws are branding nonviolent New Yorkers, especially young adults, as criminals, creating a vicious cycle that ruins lives and needlessly wastes taxpayer dollars.”

The bill represents the third effort in 2013 to topple legal barriers to pot use in New York state. Proposals to legalize marijuana for seriously ill patients and to fix a loophole in New York’s decades-old marijuana decriminalization law both passed the state Assembly earlier this year, but the state Senate adjourned in June without taking action on either measure.

Advocates for pot legalization hope the new bill will fare better, but even they concede that the state’s failure to adopt far more modest reforms doesn’t bode well for the sweeping new proposal.

“It’s unlikely that this bill is passing this year,” said Gabriel Sayegh, the New York director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a group that advocates for the legalization of all drugs.

Still, he added, “it is an important contribution to the discussion that we should be having about our broken marijuana policies in New York.”

About 600,000 people have been arrested for marijuana possession in the state since 1997, according to the Drug Policy Alliance. In New York City, more people are arrested for marijuana possession than for any other offense. As Krueger stressed at the press conference, the vast majority are black and Latino, despite evidence showing that marijuana use is more common among whites.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo has expressed ambivalence about legalizing marijuana even for medical use. But he led an effort last year to make possession of marijuana in public view a violation instead of a misdemeanor. Under a state law that has been on the books since 1977, possession of a small amount of marijuana is a minor offense on par with jaywalking. But if you you are caught holding or smoking pot in public view, you can be charged with a much more serious offense -- a misdemeanor punishable by up to three months in jail and a $500 fine.

Civil-liberties advocates say that many of the young black and Latino men who are charged with this offense bring the drug out into the open only after police tell them to empty their pockets. The outgoing New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly directed his department to put an end to the practice last year, but critics of pot prohibition say that broader reforms are needed.

“We’re spending taxpayer money to ruin lives, disproportionately for those from communities of color, with no real public policy goal to be found in any of it,” Krueger said.

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