Hundreds of Activists and Community Leaders Descend on Albany with Thousands of Petition Signatures Calling on Senate to Pass Legislation that Would End 50,000+ Annual Costly, Unlawful and Racially Biased Arrests

Press Release June 11, 2012
Media Contact

Tony Newman, Drug Policy Alliance: 646-335-5384<br />
Alfredo Carrasquillo, VOCAL NY: 718-415-9254<br />
Kyung Ji Rhee, Center For NuLeadership: 347-712-0259<br />
Timothy K. Rusch, ColorOfChange:&nbsp; 917- 399-0236</p>

NEW YORK: Today hundreds of activists and concerned New Yorkers from around the state gathered in Albany to demand that Senate Republicans pass A. 10581, a bill that would end the practice of arresting individuals for possessing small amounts of marijuana in public view.  Following the rally, activists delivered a petition with more than 6,500 signatures to Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, calling on him to advance sensible reforms.

The legislation was introduced by Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries at the request of Governor Andrew Cuomo to standardize penalties for marijuana possession in New York, aligning police practice with the original legislative intent of the 1977 law that made possession of small amounts of marijuana a violation, rather than a misdemeanor.

"We must standardize penalties associated with marijuana possession in order to end existing practices which needlessly scars thousands of lives and waste millions of dollars in law enforcement resources, while detracting from the prosecution of serious crime,” said New York State Assembly Member Hakeem Jeffries, sponsor of the legislation. “For years, thousands of New Yorkers, who are disproportionately Black and Latino youth, have been charged with unnecessary misdemeanors, thereby creating barriers for future employment and intensifying tensions between law enforcement and communities. This legislation will ensure that individuals who possess small amounts of marijuana are sanctioned appropriately while avoiding permanent damage on their records. Now it’s time for my colleagues in the Senate to act."

The governor’s proposal would significantly reduce the number of people arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana – currently, the number one arrest in New York City is for marijuana possession, and nearly 85% of those arrested are Black and Latino, mostly young men, even though youth whites use marijuana at higher rates. The proposal has the support of law enforcement officials across the state, including NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and other police chiefs in New York, and District Attorneys from New York City, Long Island, and Upstate.

“The example is set by those in power; the Mayor and the Police Commissioner are the ones who set policy, and it is up to them to stop encouraging unlawful marijuana arrests.  It is time for them to remove the pressure on police officers for more and more stops and frisks, leading to unlawful marijuana arrests,” said Joanne Naughton, a former Detective with over 20 years in the NYPD. “This proposal is a positive development.”

"Right now, Senate President Dean Skelos is the primary obstacle to passing legislation that could allow Black and Latino New Yorkers to walk their neighborhoods with the same freedom and comfort that their White counterparts experience," said ColorOfChange Executive Director Rashad Robinson. "New Yorkers are ready to put an end to racially-biased marijuana arrests, and we're here to make sure that lawmakers in Albany end the NYPD's ability to abuse and humiliate young people of color at will."

Since Cuomo announced his intent to change the law, support for the reforms has poured in from across the state.  The New York Times, the Daily News, the New York Post, the Syracuse Times-Standard, and the Buffalo News are among the papers that have written editorials in support, and dozens of groups, from Buffalo to Long Island, have endorsed the reforms.

"Whether you live in East New York, or East Hampton, it’s obvious New York's current marijuana laws are flawed, "said Lisa Tyson, Director of the Long Island Progressive Coalition.  "Long Islanders want to see a common sense drug policy, and the Governor's proposed decriminalization delivers exactly that.  As budgets are shrinking across the state, these reforms will help the police shift their focus away from minor marijuana possession and toward crimes that actually threaten our communities."

These unlawful arrests, which exceeded 50,000 in 2011, cost the tax payers an estimated $75 million dollars each year, during a time of fiscal crisis when essential services are being cut. Research finds that most people arrested for marijuana possession did not have it in public view (a misdemeanor), but had a small amount in a pocket and were either tricked by the police to reveal it – or, worse, many people are illegally searched, as evidenced in a recent report about the practice.

“Stop and frisk is something that happens too often in my community,” said Alfredo Carrasquillo of VOCAL-NY.  “I myself have been stopped and frisked more times than I can count. And like many people I know, I’ve been unlawfully arrested for marijuana in the course of these stops. This legislation to standardize the penalties and end unlawful marijuana arrests is important to not only to end racially biased practices and policies, but is important to creating healthy and safe communities.”

Experts, activists, law enforcement officials, health experts and political leaders are supporting the reforms because they all realize that criminalizing young people is not an effective strategy to prevent marijuana use; rather it creates distrust between police and the communities they serve.

“This bill is not about decriminalizing marijuana; it’s about raising the bar on how we achieve accountability, racial equity, and most of all, public safety, built on policies that encourage community engagement and solutions,” says Chino Hardin, lead trainer at Center for NuLeadership on Urban Solutions.  ”It’s a step in the right direction, and we call on our legislative leaders to join the growing and diverse community leadership for safety and justice.”

“As public defenders, every day we see how New York City courts are clogged with needless arrests,” says Renate Lunn of the 5 Borough Defenders. “Our clients lose faith in the criminal justice system when they are subjected to humiliating frisks without reason, when they see only people of color sharing their jail cells with them, and when they learn that they are being charged with a  misdemeanor when they were only guilty of a non-criminal violation.”

“The disproportionate impact of the criminal justice system on people of color is extremely destructive and largely driven by racial profiling and the criminalization of many of our young people for marijuana possession,” said Dr. Alice Green, founder and director of the Albany-based Center for Law Justice. “The insane policy of criminalizing Black and Latino youth must be stopped now.”

New York can no longer afford the human and the financial costs of these racially-biased arrests. Advocates vowed to keep the pressure on the Senate to pass these common-sense reforms.

“I’m sure everyone in the Senate – including Majority Leader Skelos — agrees that it’s unacceptable for the laws to be applied differently to different groups of people based on race, ethnicity, and where people live,” said gabriel sayegh, state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “But that’s exactly what’s happening right now with these marijuana arrests, which is why we need reform. Governor Cuomo’s proposal — supported by law enforcement officials from around the state, including on Long Island – is an important step towards equity and fairness.  The only controversial thing about this proposal is the notion that it won’t pass this year.”

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

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