In his State of the State address Wednesday, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) called on the legislature to reform the state's marijuana laws. Marijuana possession has been decriminalized in the state since 1977, but New York City has emerged as the nation's marijuana arrest capitol because the NYPD habitually charges small-time offenders with "open view" possession -- a misdemeanor -- after intimidating them into pulling their baggies out of their pockets.
Cuomo attempted to push forward a reform bill last year, but that effort was stalled in the state Senate despite being supported by NYPD Commissioner Raymond Kelley, all five New York City prosecutors, and numerous others.
Cuomo noted the discrepancy in the law between public and private possession and called on solons to enact legislation to decriminalize the possession of up to 15 grams of pot in either private or public. The governor cited the negative impacts of mass marijuana arrests, including criminalization, stigmatization, wasted resources, and racial disparities.
"It's not fair, it's not right. It must end, and it must end now," he demanded.
Mass marijuana arrests are "not worth it in dollars, in stigma or in impact. In order to fix the inequity in the law while still recognizing that possession in public is different from possession in one's home, the Governor will propose legislation that makes 'open view' possession of marijuana in amounts of 15 grams or less a violation punishable by a fine," he said in prepared remarks.
That's what drug reformers, community activists, and civil liberties and racial justice activists wanted to hear.
"We cannot have the same laws applied differently to different groups of people when the dividing line is race," said Gabriel Sayegh, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "The governor’s proposal is an essential step towards bringing greater fairness and equity to both our drug laws and policing practices in our state. The criminalization of our young people must end -- the legislature must now act now to pass the governor’s bill."
"I hope [Republican conference leader] 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, which have been one of the leading consequences of stop and frisk," said Alfredo Carrasquillo, a civil rights organizer for VOCAL-NY. "Governor Cuomo is right that these arrests mean more than a night in jail -- they can have lasting effects on a person's access to jobs, housing and a better future."
"With stop and frisk and needless criminalization, too many of our young people are swept up in the criminal justice system. Governor Cuomo’s reform proposal is a critical step towards a brighter future for our youth," said Kyung Ji Kate Rhee of the Center for NuLeadership. "Instead of wasting money on these arrests, we should be investing in community development and resources that are far more effective at guiding our youth in the choices they make towards fulfilling their best potential."
Now, let's see if the legislature is listening.