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NY Marijuana Decriminalization: A Step in the Right Direction

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Tuesday, I applauded N.Y. Gov. Andrew Cuomo's announcement of legislation that will decriminalize the public possession of small amounts of marijuana, changing it from a misdemeanor to a fine-able violation similar to a traffic offense.

This proposal was motivated largely by an increasing awareness that the criminal prosecution of marijuana possession has had a disproportionate impact on minority communities. The state has finally realized that the police's "stop-and-frisk" tactics have mainly accomplished one thing: they have trapped tens of thousands of young black and Latino men in the criminal justice system. With a criminal record, most of these individuals will face tremendous barriers to education and employment for the rest of their lives.

It's clear that there are deeply rooted racial and socioeconomic prejudices in our country's historical approach to drug policy, and for far too long the supposed solutions have favored criminal prosecution among minorities. I'm all in favor of fixing broken drug policy, but in doing so we mustn't forget that marijuana does indeed have its dangers.

Marijuana use continues to rise among young people, which is particularly alarming given the drug's tremendous negative effects on still-maturing brains. Plus, approximately 10 percent of those who try marijuana (104 million Americans) become addicted. Despite popular belief, this isn't some sort of harmless all-natural herb, and its legalization would be disastrous.

Although we can all acknowledge that the supply-targeted "war on drugs" has failed, legalization of marijuana and other harmful drugs is not the answer. Legalization would produce countless negative consequences, from increased use by minors to increased health care costs. It would make the cultivation and sale of marijuana legal, like tobacco and alcohol -- and we all know how that story goes in terms of marketing and advertising, which exert particular influence over teens.

Still, there is absolutely no reason to continue incarcerating non-violent drug users, who make up the majority of marijuana arrests; in 2009, 45.6 percent of all drug abuse arrests were for marijuana possession. These people shouldn't end up in end up in jail, period. Incarceration won't make their lives better, it won't make their communities better, and it certainly won't help decrease the national rates of drug abuse. The U.N. Global Commission on Drug Policy is correct in stating that "criminalization and repressive measures have failed to effectively curtail supply or consumption." It's a lose-lose situation, and funneling non-violent drug users into prison instead of into treatment programs only turns them into criminals and perpetuates the cycle.

Reverend Al Sharpton was correct in praising Cuomo's marijuana proposal as "a step in the right direction," but it is only the first of many steps that need to be taken to address drug abuse in our state and our nation. For one thing, the proposal continues to classify public marijuana smoking as a misdemeanor, whereas another bill proposed by Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries and State Senator Mark J. Grisanti would end low-level marijuana arrests entirely. That is the kind of bill we need, and neither the state nor the nation should rest until every non-violent drug offender (yes, even those caught using in public) is treated, not incarcerated.

The New York police may have set an unfortunate historical precedent for discrimination, but we all know that drug use doesn't discriminate. It's a disease that can and does affect all kinds of people from all walks of life, and it's common human decency to offer sick people treatment, not jail time.