Bill Introduced in Albany to Clarify Law, Standardize Penalties for Simple Marijuana Possession

Press Release May 11, 2011
Media Contact

Tony Newman 646-335-5384 or gabriel sayegh 646-335-2264</p>

ALBANY: Bi-partisan legislation was introduced this week in Albany to address the fiscal and human costs of the meteoric rise in arrests for marijuana possession in New York. Senate Bill 5187, introduced by Senator Mark Grisanti (R-Buffalo), and Assembly Bill 7620, introduced by Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries (D, WFP – Brooklyn) seeks to save taxpayer dollars, protect against illegal searches, and reduce unwarranted racial disparities in arrests by clarifying the law and standardizing penalties for marijuana possession offenses.

In 2010, over 54,000 people were arrested in NY for possessing small amounts of marijuana – over 50,000 of those arrests occurred in New York City alone. A major study released in March by the Drug Policy Alliance found that each arrest for simple marijuana possession, conservatively estimated, costs between $1,000 – $2,000 – thus New York taxpayers are spending about $75 million every year on arresting people for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

What many New Yorkers don’t know is that the state decriminalized marijuana possession over thirty years ago – making private possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana (about 7/8 of an ounce) a violation punishable by a $100 fine; possession of any amount in view of the public was made a misdemeanor. In passing the Marihuana Reform Act of 1977 –then co-sponsored by a Republican State Senator and a Democratic State Assemblyman – the Legislature made an explicit finding that became part of the new law: "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 waste millions of dollars in law enforcement resources, while detracting from the prosecution of serious crime." This provision of the law was never changed.

Today, arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana are skyrocketing in New York. In New York City, marijuana possession is the number one arrest, comprising 15 percent of all arrests in that city. A growing body of research and recent news reports demonstrate that most of these arrests are the result of illegal frisks and searches.

State Senator Mark Grisanti, sponsor of the legislation in the Senate, said, "With New York in serious fiscal crisis, we simply cannot afford to arrest tens of thousands of otherwise law-abiding citizens for possessing small amounts of marijuana – especially when so many of these arrests are the result of illegal searches or mis-charging. Furthermore, the unwarranted racial disparities associated with these arrests are unacceptable. This legislation strikes the right balance by discouraging and punishing possession and use of marijuana while promoting smarter, more effective use of our limited fiscal resources."

Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, sponsor of the legislation in the Assembly, said, "This legislation is an additional step toward a more equitable criminal justice system that treats everyone the same regardless of race or socioeconomic status. During these difficult economic times, our increasingly scarce law enforcement resources should be used in the most efficient manner possible. It is therefore important that the legislature promptly act to address the explosion of improper marijuana arrests."

A major two-part story by National Public Radio-affiliate WNYC (April 26 and 27, 2011) further confirmed research findings that most people arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana were either mischarged – charged with a crime they did not commit – and/or illegally searched. Often in the course of a stop-and-frisk encounter, if the police find marijuana in a pocket or bag, they nonetheless arrest and charge the individual with possessing marijuana in public view – a misdemeanor. Many others are compelled by the police to reveal the marijuana in their bag or pocket; the police ask them to "empty out your pockets" or "empty out your bag." Many people comply with the officer’s request, even though they are not legally required to do so. Once in "public view," the marijuana possession becomes a misdemeanor – a criminal offense – and then the person is arrested and charged for this offense. The NYPD makes nearly a thousand arrests and jailings a week for simple marijuana possession – one of every seven arrests in NYC is for marijuana possession.

Statewide, nearly 70% of those arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana are of young people aged 16-29. Nearly 84% of all those arrested are black and Latino, even though studies show that young whites use marijuana at higher rates. Studies by Dr. Harry Levine of Queens College show that among cities and counties in the U.S., Buffalo, Syracuse and New York City rank among the highest in terms of racial disparities associated with arrests for possessing small amounts of marijuana.

"The consequences of an arrest are severe, especially for young people of color who are already disproportionally arrested and incarcerated," said Kyung Ji Rhee, Director of the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives. "Young people of color are targeted, illegally searched and being put through the criminal justice system for possessing marijuana. Whatever your opinion may be on marijuana, this is no way to treat or teach young people about the choices they make."

The April 2011 WNYC story highlighted the extent to which mischarging and illegal searches lead to these arrests – noting that in the Bronx alone, the District Attorney throws out 10 – 15 cases every day because the police mischarged a person for marijuana possession in public view, when in fact the person possessed marijuana in their pocket or bag. Many of these arrests are the result of illegal searches.

"I shouldn't have to feel like a criminal when I walk down the street in my neighborhood," said Alfredo Carrassquillo, a Community Organizer with VOCAL-NY. "It feels like the police aren't there to protect the community when they stop, frisk and illegally search people like me just because we're going home or hanging out in the park. I've spent the night in jail multiple times for having a small amount of weed in my pocket because police have used a loophole in the law to arrest me — charging me with marijuana in public view — even though I was never using marijuana in public. We should be spending money on summer youth employment, after school programs, and jobs for people coming home from prison, not illegal arrests."

Under the reform legislation introduced by Senator Grisanti and Assemblyman Jeffries, possession and use of any amount of marijuana would remain illegal. The reform standardizes penalties for possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana in private or public – violators would be subject to a fine, while multiple violations could lead to a jail sentence.

"These arrests have become a "head start" program into the criminal justice system for young people, especially young black and Latino men," said Gabriel Sayegh, NY State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Senator Grisanti and Assemblyman Jeffries should be commended for their leadership. Democrat or Republican, upstate or downstate – reasonable people know we cannot afford to spend tens of millions of dollars every year to illegally search, arrest and jail people for possessing small amounts of marijuana, especially when those people can instead be ticketed and fined. There are clearly much more effective ways to spend our limited resources to realize public health and safety."

A young woman holds a sign that says "End the Drug War."

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