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Gov. Cuomo Calls for Reform: Marijuana Arrests That 'Stigmatize and Criminalize... Must End Now'

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Getty File
Getty File

In his State of the State address on Wednesday, Gov. Andrew Cuomo made a passionate call to reform New York's marijuana possession laws in order to reduce the enormous number of unlawful, biased, and costly arrests. The governor noted the discrepancy in the law between public and private possession of marijuana, and proposed standardizing the penalties for possession of small amounts. After citing the harmful outcomes of these arrests -- like racial disparities, stigma from criminalization, and fiscal waste -- the governor made a forceful call for immediate reform: "It's not fair, it's not right. It must end, and it must end now."

Possession of marijuana is the leading arrest in New York City today -- but it's not supposed to be this way. In 1977, New York State removed criminal penalties for private possession of marijuana, and made possession in public view a misdemeanor. The 1977 Legislature made its intent clear:

The legislature finds that arrests, criminal prosecutions, and criminal penalties are inappropriate for people who possess small quantities of marihuana (sic) 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.

Despite -- or in spite of -- the legislative intent, more than 600,000 people have been arrested for marijuana possession during the last 15 years in New York. Most of these arrest occur in the Big Apple: more than 50,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2011 alone. Most of these arrests are unconstitutional -- people possessing marijuana in their pocket or bag are instead charged and arrested for possession in public view. Nearly 85 percent of those arrested are black and Latino, mostly young men, even though government data shows that young whites use marijuana at higher rates. This creates, essentially, a two-tier legal system where the law is applied differently to different groups of people depending on their race. As if the human costs weren't already bad enough, this practice costs taxpayers at least $75 million a year. It's a classic case of drug war insanity.

In calling for reform, the governor enjoys broad support from community groups, faith and civil rights organizations, parents, young people, drug policy reformers -- and law enforcement, including NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly, all five New York City district attorneys, Rochester Police Chief James Sheppard, and others.

But winning reform in Albany won't be easy. Last year, when Cuomo introduced similar reforms, Senate leadership, in an act of drug war extremism, opposed the measure. "I hope Senator Skelos and the entire legislature heard Governor Cuomo loud and clear when he said it's time to end marijuana arrests that 'stigmatize and criminalize' young people of color, one of the leading consequences of stop and frisk," said Alfredo Carrasquillo, VOCAL-NY's Civil Rights Organizer. "Governor Cuomo is right: these arrests mean more than a just a night in jail. They can have lasting effects on a person's access to jobs, housing and a better future."

After 40 years of a failed war on drugs, states across the country are finally beginning to propose and, in some places, enact more sensible drug laws. And while New York has led the way on many important drug policy reforms -- rolling back the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws and recently enacting a strong 911 Good Samaritan bill to prevent accidental overdose deaths -- the Empire State's marijuana policies have been long stuck in retrograde. While much more needs to be done, Cuomo's marijuana reform proposal is one important step in the right direction. His call to end the widely abused police practice of "stop and frisk" is another.

"With stop and frisk and marijuana arrests, too many of our young people are swept up in the criminal justice system," said Kyung Ji Kate Rhee, juvenile justice director at the Center for NuLeadership. "Governor Cuomo's reform proposal, once passed, is an important step to help us secure a brighter future for our youth. Instead of wasting money on unlawful marijuana arrests, we can invest in community development and provide resources that support our youth in reaching their best potential."