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New York Could Decriminalize Pot For More Than Just White People

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New York State Senator Daniel Squadron speaks on the steps of New York City Hall in support of the proposed Fairness and Equity Act, which would attempt to reform racially biased arrests in regards to marijuana possession in New York state, on July 9, 2014. | Andrew Burton via Getty Images

NEW YORK -- A comprehensive new bill would ensure that marijuana in New York state is decriminalized not only for white people, but for all people, a group of progressive lawmakers said Wednesday.

Under the Fairness and Equity Act, those arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana would not be charged with a criminal misdemeanor. Instead, they would face only a violation, and in some instances, a fine comparable to a parking ticket.

New York is the marijuana arrest capital of the world, even though the state technically decriminalized the drug all the way back in 1977. That's because the 1977 law had a loophole: Those arrested for "private" possession would be issued a violation, while those arrested for "public" possession would be charged with a criminal misdemeanor.

In the late 1990s, New York City police started asking the hundreds of thousands of people they stopped on the streets each year to empty their pockets. In 2013, 85 percent of those stopped were black or Latino.

When weed comes out of the pocket, it becomes "in public view," thus allowing cops to make an arrest for misdemeanor criminal possession.

This "in public view" loophole has meant jail time and criminal records for thousands of New Yorkers, most of whom are minorities. Since 2010, the city has averaged 30,000 to 50,000 marijuana arrests each year. And during the decade between 2002 and 2012, a full 87 percent of the people arrested for marijuana possession in the city were black or Latino.

The Fairness and Equity Act would close this loophole, making public possession only punishable by a noncriminal violation.

"This is a basic issue of fairness -- you shouldn't be able to predict who will be charged with a crime based on race and ethnicity," state Senator Daniel Squadron (D), the sponsor of the bill, told reporters outside City Hall in Manhattan on Wednesday. "Today, marijuana possession almost never means a criminal record for white New Yorkers, but could easily mean a criminal record for many black and Latino New Yorkers, who are actually less likely to possess marijuana."

Squadron added that in his own, predominantly white neighborhood of Carroll Gardens, Brooklyn, there were only 12 marijuana arrests in the first three months of this year. Meanwhile, in the predominantly black neighborhood of East New York, Brooklyn, there were over 430 arrests during the same three months.

Squadron's bill is co-sponsored in the state Assembly by Assemblyman Karim Camara, who was careful to point out Wednesday that this bill would not legalize marijuana in the state.

"There are still penalties. There are still fines. You still have to appear in court," Camara said. "We are not legalizing it. We are just saying it should not be a misdemeanor."

The bill also aims to make amends with the hundreds of thousands of people who have been arrested for low-level marijuana possession in New York state. One provision would create a process that would allow some people arrested for marijuana possession to clear their records.

The bill would also provide ways for licensed professionals, such as nurses and security guards, to avoid losing their jobs over marijuana arrests, and would help undocumented immigrants forego deportation for possessing small amounts of pot.

Additionally, the bill would would redefine what constitutes a "sale" of marijuana. Current state law holds that when a person shares weed with another person -- an act that can be as simple as passing a joint -- he or she is a drug dealer, meaning they could be arrested for sale of the drug and face harsher punishment. The bill would make it so that only individuals who sell the drug in exchange for money can be charged with a criminal sales offense.

Although a 2011 bill to further decriminalize marijuana in New York had bipartisan support, Republican majority leaders in the state Senate prevented it from coming to the floor for a vote. The Fairness and Equity Act, however, might have a brighter future. That's because when the state legislature reconvenes at the beginning of 2015, Democrats could hold the sole majority in the chamber.

Squadron told The Huffington Post Wednesday that with a Democratic majority in the Senate, the bill would likely come to a vote. All the bill would need, he said, is for it come to an "up or down vote."

"When bills like this come to a vote," Squadron said, "it's much harder for people to stand against fairness and equity than it is when it gets killed in a back room."

Although Governor Andrew Cuomo (D) has expressed support for decriminalization in the past, it's unclear whether he would support the Fairness and Equity Act.

Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson, meanwhile, has taken matters into his own hands, announcing this week that his office will cease to prosecute many low-level marijuana arrests.

Although Mayor Bill de Blasio made campaign promises to rein in the number of marijuana arrests in New York, the NYPD has continued to arrest thousands of people. In the first four months of 2014, New York City officers averaged about 80 marijuana arrests per day, just above the average 78 arrests per day that took place in 2013 under Mayor Michael Bloomberg.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that there were 12 marijuana arrests so far this year in Carroll Gardens Brooklyn, and over 530 such arrests so far this year in East New York. There were actually 12 marijuana arrests in Carroll Gardens during the first three months of this year, and over 430 marijuana arrests during those same three months.

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