06/22/2012 11:06 am ET Updated Aug 22, 2012

GOP Bump on the Road to Stop-and-Frisk Reform

Well, the New York State Legislature has gone away. Miss it? Me neither.

Among the things that didn't happen before the closing bell was action on Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposal to change the marijuana laws, which currently allow residents to carry small amounts of marijuana in a pocket or purse, but not to display it openly.

Cuomo wanted to decriminalize the public display of small amounts of marijuana as long as it's not being smoked. This sounds like a hair-splitting, minimalist change in the law, but it was extremely important.

Here's why: New York City police have a stop-and-frisk fixation. To put it bluntly, cops stop young minority males who aren't doing anything wrong with such frequency that if you know a black or Hispanic person under the age of 21 who's never had the experience, it's likely that he's a shut-in or an exchange student who actually spends 11 months of the year in Minnesota or Des Moines.

The worst part of the practice is the point at which the officers tell the kids to empty their pockets. The small amount of marijuana which was perfectly OK suddenly becomes an arrestable offense when it's brought out into the open.

The complaints over stop-and-frisk have been loud and long in minority communities. The police claim it's the magic weapon that keeps crime rates low. White New Yorkers tend to agree. The tension between the two sides is real, and potentially dangerous. Cuomo had an elegant solution. Eliminate the law that makes those marijuana arrests possible. The underlying problem would remain, but we'd have progress that would at minimum buy everyone more time to work out a solution.

Enter the State Senate. With a narrow Republican majority, the Senate could pose a real problem to the Democrat Cuomo on any issue, but until now he's found it remarkably cooperative. The Senate Republicans produced enough votes to legalize gay marriage, and on many economic issues Cuomo found them a useful balance to the free-spending Democratic majority in the Assembly.

He's not the first Democratic governor who didn't mind having the GOP in charge in the upper chamber. Cuomo's father, Mario, had a similar happy relationship with the Senate Republicans when he was governor. (In between the two Cuomos, we had Republican George Pataki, who was driven completely nuts by the Assembly Democrats, and the unhappy reign of Eliot Spitzer-David Paterson, which would have been a disaster even if St. Teresa of the Bleeding Heart was in charge of the legislature.)

But then there was the marijuana bill. Its defeat was unnecessary. While the more conservative Republicans genuinely hated the idea of liberalizing the law, Majority Leader Dean Skelos could certainly have rounded up the handful of votes needed to make the change if he'd wanted to.

But the Conservative Party, which cross-endorses Republicans as a matter of course, hated the idea. "We could wind up not backing someone, especially if they already have a disastrous record," said Conservative head Michael Long, who told the Daily News that "disastrous" would include a positive vote on gay marriage. If the Conservatives chose to nominate their own candidates in some key districts, they could siphon away enough votes to elect the Democrats.

There are two morals here. One is that the New York law that allows tiny third parties to cross-endorse Republicans or Democrats is crazy. The Conservative Party wouldn't last 10 minutes in New York if it didn't have the ability to piggy-back on Republican nominees.

The second is that the whole idea of a Republican state senate may be less attractive than it sounded to New York Democrats who saw it, as Cuomo did, as an easy-going hedge against the more unattractive aspects of the Assembly, and the completely awful lack of discipline the Senate Democrats showed when they had a brief moment of power a few elections ago.

The failure of the marijuana bill was important. Not because of the marijuana itself, but because of its potential to heal some of the cops-minority tensions in New York City. And the Republicans torpedoed it. Because a small third party knew it could call the shots.

Maybe it's time for a rethinking.