Gov. Andrew Cuomo's stop-and-frisk marijuana initiative is a great move for a whole raft of serious reasons. It's also good politics.
The issue at hand is current state law that makes it legal to possess a small amount of marijuana but not to display it publicly. That would seem to make sense if the goal is to keep marijuana consumption restricted to homes and other private places. But it's been badly, badly misused by New York City police in their stop-and-frisk program. Kids -- generally black and Hispanic youths -- are told to empty their pockets. If they obey and take out a joint -- voila! The grass is in public, and grounds for arrest.
The Police Department stopped a jaw-dropping 684,330 people last year under stop-and-frisk, 87 percent of them black or Hispanic. The vast majority were young men, and you have to figure that the odds are overwhelming that if you grow up male and minority in this city, you'll wind up being stopped sooner or later. (The number of stops has zoomed from 97,000 in 2002.)
The solution backed by Cuomo is a simple tweak to the law that will decriminalize the open possession of a small amount of marijuana. (You still can't smoke a joint in public.) Politically, this approach avoids a head-on assault on stop-and frisk, a move that might well frighten and alienate New Yorkers who don't want a return to the Bad Old Days of high street crime.
The proposed remedy is so neat that even stop-and-frisk groupies like Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Police Commissioner Ray Kelly are backing the change. I'm delighted with the governor's adept management of this issue, and even more overjoyed that the cranky billionaire and New York's top cop have joined the chorus.
But when it comes to handing out kudos, I have to reserve most of my praise for a small group of dedicated civil libertarians who have struggled for years to bring this important problem to the attention of the public. I'm thinking of groups like the New York Civil Liberties Union, the NAACP and the Legal Aid Society, various minority legislators and individuals like Queens College sociologist Harry Levine and Gabriel Sayegh of the Drug Policy Alliance. (Apologies to those nameless warriors who aren't mentioned here.)
Over the years, the NYCLU reports on stop-and-frisk have place a powerful spotlight on the problem, but the issue remained largely overlooked until the numbers became so astronomical that the problem demanded attention.
"We're so thrilled that stop-and-frisk has become a critical piece of the news and an important part of the conversation, but let's not congratulate ourselves prematurely," NYCLU Executive Director Donna Lieberman told HuffPost.
Cuomo's proposal requires the approval of the legislature. It will sail through the Assembly, but could face problems in the GOP-controlled Senate. Even if enacted, it remains to be seen what kind of practical impact it will have on the NYPD's stop-and-frisk dragnet.
Still, this is about as good as it gets in New York politics. A change that will benefit young minority New Yorkers, an apparent consensus among the big dogs who need to get it done. Not perfect, but maybe real progress. Gee, next thing you know, we'll figure out how to get tolls on the East River bridges.
Right -- I'm getting carried away. Let's be grateful for what we've got.