Major Progressive Coalition of Elected Officials, Labor and Community Groups Announce New Statewide Legislation to Address Unlawful, Racist Marijuana Arrests

Press Release July 8, 2014
Media Contact

<p>Contact: gabriel sayegh (646) 335-2264 or Tony Newman (646) 335-5384</p>

NEW YORK: Today, dozens of elected officials, labor leaders, community members and legal experts rallied on the steps of City Hall introduce the Fairness and Equity Act — comprehensive reform to address racially biased marijuana arrests and devastating collateral consequences in New York.  The bill, sponsored by Assemblymember Karim Camara and Senator Daniel Squadron, builds upon previous attempts to fix New York’s broken decriminalization law and seeks to advance fairness and equity within the justice system.

Attendees included Chair of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, Asian Caucus Assembly member Karim Camara, Senator Daniel Squadron, Senator Adriano Espaillat, Senator Velmanette Montgomery, Senator Gustavo Rivera, Senator James Sanders, Senator Martin Malave Dilan, Senator Jose Serrano, Assembly member Marcus Crespo, Assembly member Walter Mosley, Assembly member Robert Rodriguez, Assembly member Jose Rivera, Assembly member Luis Sepulveda, Assembly member Carmen Arroyo, Assembly member Maritza Davila, Assembly member Felix Ortiz, Assembly member Nick Perry,  NYC Council Chair of Public Safety Vanessa L. Gibson, City Council member Rafael Espinal, City Council member Carlos Menchaca, City Council member Robert Cornegy, City Council member Inez Dickens, City Council member Anabel Palma, City Council member Ritchie Torres, City Council member Jumaane Williams, Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams, 1199 SEIU, 32BJ SEIU, RWDSU and RWDSU President Stuart Appelbaum, Working Families Party State Director Bill Lipton, VOCAL-NY, Drug Policy Alliance, NYCLU President Donna Lieberman, LatinoJustice PRLDEF Executive Director Juan Cartagena, National Action Network Northeast Regional Director Kristen John Foy, Make the Road NY, Brooklyn Defenders Services, Immigrant Defense Project, Families for Freedom, New York Harm Reduction Educators, Center for Popular Democracy, Communities United for Police Reform, Brotherhood Sister Sol, and community members who have been arrested for marijuana possession, and advocates from community health and safety organizations.

New York State decriminalized personal possession of small amounts of marijuana in 1977, finding that arresting people for small amounts of marijuana "needlessly scars thousands of lives while detracting from the prosecution of serious crimes.” Yet marijuana in “public view” remains a misdemeanor, and over the last twenty years, nearly 600,000 people having been arrested under this provision, often as the result of an illegal search or as the result of a stop-and-frisk encounter when police demand an individual “empty their pockets,” thus exposing marijuana to public view. The Fairness and Equity Act would  fix the law by making “public view” a violation (similar to a traffic ticket) instead of a misdemeanor.

Last year, there were nearly 30,000 marijuana “public view” possession arrests in New York City alone. According to data obtained from the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services about arrests in New York City from January – May, NYPD is now on track to make nearly as many marijuana possession arrests in 2014 as it did in 2013, with similarly shocking racial disparities.

There is broad national and local support for fixing broken marijuana laws that lead to biased outcomes. Last year, President Barack Obama told The New Yorker that “it’s important for society not to have a situation in which a large portion of people have at one time or another broken the law and only a select few get punished.” Governor Andrew Cuomo has called for fixing our broken marijuana decriminalization law, and Candidate Bill de Blasio, when running for mayor, called for ending the marijuana arrest crusade. But in Albany, proposals to fix New York’s marijuana possession law have stalled as the Republican-controlled Senate has refused to act. Aa a result, tens of thousands of New Yorkers continue to be arrested for mere possession of small amounts of marijuana, perpetuating racial disparities, inequity and injustice in our state.

While the Senate Republicans have delayed, municipal leaders have begun taking action. Just yesterday, Brooklyn District Attorney Ken Thompson announced the implementation of his policy to end the prosecution of most low-level marijuana possession cases. In a statement released by DA Thompson, he noted that he shares responsibility with NYPD to protect public safety, but he an additional duty “to reform and improve our criminal justice system in Brooklyn.”

The Fairness and Equity Act, sponsored by Assm. Camara and Sen. Squadron, will reform and improve the criminal justice system throughout New York. With the new, progressive Senate Majority, and Governor Cuomo recently re-committing to fixing the broken marijuana law, there is a renewed opportunity to fix the law and repair the harm wrought by the unjust practices while equipping New York’s justice system and legislators with tools to strengthen fairness and equity.


Chair of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, Asian Caucus Assembly member Karim Camara said: “With the Fairness and Equity Act, New York can fix some of the inequities in its criminal justice system. When any law disproportionately affects a race, gender, orientation or income bracket, it’s important that we take a second look to make sure it’s being implemented fairly and makes sense as policy. The criminalization of thousands of young black and Latino males for marijuana possession doesn’t make us safer as a society nor is it a good use of limited police resources.  Let’s move New York forward by making sure its laws are logical and fairly applied.”

Senator Daniel Squadron said: "This is a basic issue of fairness — you shouldn't be able to predict who will be charged with a crime based on race and ethnicity. Today, marijuana possession almost never means a criminal record for white New Yorkers, but could easily mean a criminal record for many black and Latino New Yorkers who are actually less likely to possess marijuana. This bill will replace today’s inequitable marijuana enforcement, address the disparate impact that existing law has had on black and Latino New Yorkers, and help prevent these injustices in the future. I want to thank Assemblymember Camara, the Drug Policy Alliance, VOCAL NY, and all of our colleagues and partners for joining in this endeavor and working together to fix our broken marijuana laws."

Congressman Hakeem Jeffries (NY-08), said: "The marijuana arrest policy presently in existence targets young men of color in a manner that is unfair, undemocratic and unconscionable. Unfortunately, the police department has chosen to continue the practices of the previous administration that have made New York City the marijuana arrest capitol of America. Given the intransigence at One Police Plaza, it is necessary for the state legislature to step in to address the injustice. That is why I strongly support the bill being put forth by Assemblymember Camara and Senator Squadron, and applaud them for their leadership."

Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams said: "Far too many young people, often young people of color, have been unfairly trapped in the criminal justice system based on ill-conceived legal loopholes and pre-existing biases. The Fairness and Equity Act is truth in advertising; as its name suggests, this legislation will create a more just approach for law enforcement toward the possession of small amounts of marijuana. I urge my former colleagues in the New York State Legislature to support this common-sense approach that will address this unfortunate chapter in our city's criminal justice history."

Council Member Vanessa L. Gibson (D-Bronx, 16th CD), chair of the City Council’s Public Safety Committee, said: “It’s time for our State to adopt sensible drug policies that encourage law enforcement  throughout New York to focus their limited resources on reducing violent crime and gun violence. Generations of our youth – especially young people of color – have suffered through harsh prison sentences that are a direct result of the current law and we can no longer afford to continue paying such a heavy price for ineffective policies that are taking such a heavy human toll while failing to improve public safety in our City.”

Council Member Jumaane D. Williams (D-Brooklyn), Deputy Leader, Chair of the Council’s Housing and Buildings Committee said: “I applaud Assembly Member Karim Camara and State Senator Daniel Squadron for their efforts to end racially biased marijuana arrests. I am happy to see efforts being made to fix a broken system that has left hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers behind bars. Arresting people for low level possession has long been a way that young men of more color have become stigmatized for engaging in nonviolent conduct that poses no threat or harm to our community. It is long past time that we end this disparity, and this proposal brings us one step closer to ending that.”

Senator Martin Malavé Dilan said: “Much has changed in marijuana policy since decriminalization nearly 40 years ago; so much so that the legislature and Governor recently approved its medicinal use. However, public possession of marijuana remains one of the most draconian drug policies in the nation. It has wasted police and court resources and unfairly targeted minority communities. The day to close the public-possession-loophole has come.”

Senator Brad Holyman said: "I applaud Senator Squadron and Assembly Member Camara for introducing this common sense legislation to end racial disparities in marijuana arrests. The Fairness and Equity Act will ensure that changes to our criminal justice system are impartial and just instead of more outdated or punitive laws that result in disparate impacts on minority communities."

Senator Velmanette Montgomery said: “Too many of our young people have had their lives changed forever by harsh punishment for possession of small amounts of marijuana and the unreasonable stigma has stayed on their records forever, limiting their adult lives tremendously. Correcting these inequities and allowing for right-sizing of enforcement for marijuana possession and insuring these records are dealt with as we would any other minor infraction is a wise and welcome development. I am happy to support this legislation which adjusts our laws to reflect our society’s evolving attitudes.”

Senator Bill Perkins said: “I am a proud cosponsor of the “Fairness and Equity Act” and the six essential pillars that constitute it.  Collectively, this omnibus reform proposal will rationalize, standardize and humanize our laws and legal procedures concerning the possession of small amounts of marijuana. This legislation is fundamentally necessary because the current state of affairs has resulted in decades-long unequal, discriminatory and racially biased outcomes for Black and Latino individuals—with catastrophic generational consequences.  I am particularly heartened that this bill will establish racial and ethnic impact statements for future legislation that modifies our penal law, so we can commence to proactively account for and remove the pervasive racial and ethnic disparities that so sadly plaque our present system.”

Senator Gustavo Rivera said: “It is unacceptable that a technicality continues to saddle thousands of New Yorkers, in particular minorities, with criminal records. This innovative legislation will help create a more efficient and just criminal justice system while addressing the consequences that have resulted in our communities due to these unjust and needless arrests.”

Senator José M. Serrano said: "I would like to thank my colleagues, Assembly Member Karim Camara and Senator Daniel Squadron, for creating legislation that addresses the unfortunate reality of racially biased arrests associated with the current marijuana possession laws. This comprehensive legislation will allow us to save money and resources, while reducing racially biased and unlawful marijuana arrests.”

Assembly Member Maritza Davila said: “As a member of the minority in New York, I understand the struggle facing people, especially young adults, who experience racially biased marijuana arrests. It is wrong that the minorities are being disproportionally impacted by the way these arrests are being conducted. We need to change perspective and find new solutions that can address the dynamics of our society. This is why I am happy to support my colleagues in introducing new legislation that will end racially biased marijuana arrests.”

Assembly Member Francisco P. Moya (D-Jackson Heights) said: “Reforms to our broken marijuana laws are way overdue. For too long, too many people have become unnecessarily entangled with the criminal justice system for minor offenses. A marijuana-related conviction can have far-reaching consequences; it can make it more difficult to secure employment, it can cause eviction from public housing. In short, a low-level offense can make productive participation in the economy much more difficult. This is not what we want. The Fairness and Equity Act will right-size the penalty for low-level offenses and end racially biased marijuana arrests. It’s time our marijuana laws were aligned with common sense.”

Assembly Member Felix W. Ortiz said: “Innovative solutions are needed to address New York’s drug enforcement law problems. I agree with Mayor deBlasio that too many arrests involve racial bias. Healthy communities can grow when New Yorkers are not faced with discriminatory arrests.”

Assembly Member Robert J. Rodriguez said: “We are excited to support the introduction of this legislation that seeks to cure New York State of a significant racial injustice. Disproportionate numbers of black and Latino New Yorkers, particularly our men and youth, have been unlawfully stopped, questioned, frisked and sent through the revolving door of our judicial system for this non-violent offense. The stain left on their records costs not only money, but in some instances employment, educational funds or even legal immigration status. Closing this loophole will benefit our families, law enforcement, and taxpayers."

Assemblymember Luis Sepulveda said: "I have seen firsthand the effects of these unfair marijuana arrests on the black and Latino young people who live in my district.   Their ability to work and make an honest living is tarnished because of a simple arrest for a small amount of marijuana.  This law will help to reduce the disparate impact that these arrests have on communities of color, allowing them to obtain college degrees, start careers, and become taxpaying, productive members of society."

Council Member Robert E. Cornegy, Jr. said: “I’m proud to be from Brooklyn, where our new District Attorney Kenneth Thompson has made the strong decision to stop prosecuting most arrests for low-level marijuana possession. There’s just no good reason to subject members of our community to the problems with employment, educational loans and housing that a marijuana arrest creates. It’s time for our Senate to take action and protect the futures and civil liberties of New Yorkers statewide by reforming this marijuana possession law.”

Council Member Laurie A. Cumbo (D-35) said: “For years, young people of color have been criminalized for possessing small amounts of marijuana jeopardizing future opportunities for employment, housing, financial aid to pursue higher education, and legal residency. As a result, low-income families and communities have suffered tremendously from the overwhelming number of arrests, which has placed a significant strain on the resources of our City's justice system. The Fairness and Equity Act will end racial disparity and address the undeniable need for reform to close the pipeline to prison.”

Council Member Rafael L. Espinal, Jr. of Brooklyn said: “I am proud to add my voice on calling on the State legislature and the Governor to consider the Fairness and Equality Act as a comprehensive and responsible way to repair New York's confusing criminalization laws as it pertains to marijuana. Every year thousands of young people of color in New York get arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana, a practice that tarnishes their records and can have long term devastating effects on their lives. This practice must stop.”

Council Member Carlos Menchaca said: “At a time when marijuana-related arrests are at a high, I am proud to join my colleagues at the State-level to ensure that throughout the state—and especially in low-income, communities of color—the appropriate measures are being taken to conduct policing in a non-discriminatory way. This bill will allow us to look more completely at how we tackle racial discrimination in our penal system, and will serve as a model on how to create truly inclusive, and progressive drug policy.”

Council Member Annabel Palma said: “Marijuana arrests disproportionately affect young men of color and unnecessarily overburden our criminal justice system. I applaud Assembly Member Camara and Senator Squadron for proposing a more sensible and humane approach to possession cases.  This bill is clearly a step in the right direction.”

Council Member Donovan Richards said: “In an effort to stem the harmful effects of a punitive and historically discriminatory system of incarceration, I proudly stand in support of this effort to end racially based marijuana arrests. The comprehensive approach of judicial flexibility, standardization, and the reduction of penalties for non-criminal amounts found in the Fairness and Equity Act is as step in the right direction to promote justice for all.”

Council Member Ritchie Torres said: “I stand with Assembly Member Camara and Senator Squadron in support of this new legislation. New Yorkers have the right not to have their future opportunities for legal status, housing and employment destroyed due to a marijuana possession arrest.”

Hector Figueroa, president of 32BJ SEIU said: “The current marijuana laws in New York have meant that communities of color, where most of our members live, have been hit the hardest by racially biased and unlawful arrests. Too many of our young people get caught up unfairly in the criminal justice system, which harms their futures and their families. This bill would help to alleviate the biased burden that has been placed on our communities.”

Stuart AppeLbaum of RWDSU said: “This is racial profiling of the worst kind and it needs to end—now. The human and financial costs of these arrests to working people and their families are enormous. A criminal record based on a single misdemeanor arrest for a small amount of marijuana can lead to permanent discrimination in employment and housing. That is outrageous and unacceptable, and, together, we must stop it. I urge all progressives, all Democrats, and indeed, all people of conscience in our city and across our state, to help create a better, fairer and more just New York by supporting the Fairness and Equity Act.”

Bill Lipton, NYS Director of the Working Families Party said: “Years of ineffective marijuana laws have criminalized young people of color and blocked them from reaching their true potential. With a progressive majority in the Senate, we can finally pass marijuana decriminalization and take a new approach to fixing these costly and counterproductive policies that have produced racially discriminatory outcomes. The WFP is proud to be putting its weight behind electing a new Senate that will stand with the Governor and finally end the backwards marijuana policies that have plagued communities of color and imprisoned our youth.”

Alfredo Carrasquillo, Civil Rights organizer with VOCAL-NY said: "New York's broken marijuana laws need a complete overhaul and The Fairness and Equity Act is the way to do it. This groundbreaking legislation will end racist marijuana arrests, provide relief for those already victimized, and pave the way for a more just criminal system. We look forward to working with bill sponsors and Governor Cuomo to pass this legislation and bring justice to communities of color across New York State."

gabriel sayegh, State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said: “The Fairness and Equity Act is the right response to the decades-long injustices wrought under the marijuana arrest crusade. Now is the time for justice, fairness and equity is now.”

Brooklyn Defender Services said: “Low-level marijuana possession continues to be one of the most common charges faced by our clients. While the criminal penalties of these arrests are not typically severe, the unintended consequences can be devastating – loss of housing, employment, parental rights, immigration status and educational opportunities. Meanwhile, despite equal marijuana usage rates between races, the burden of these arrests falls almost exclusively on people of color. This legislation, in addition to taking aim at the racially-biased nature of the issue, will seek to correct past injustices and provide us with new tools to mitigate extreme collateral consequences for marijuana possession.”

Marsha Weissman, Ph.D., Executive Director, Center for Community Alternatives said:
“By de-criminalizing public possession of small amounts of marijuana and making other long-overdue changes to New York’s penal code, this bill is a significant step toward confronting the problem of mass criminalization and racial unfairness in New York’s criminal justice system.”

Yul-san Liem of Communities United for Police Reform said: “The continued discriminatory targeting and arrests of Black and Latino New Yorkers for low-level marijuana possession – often the result of unlawful searches – must end. A two-tiered justice system only perpetuates our inequality crisis, and the higher marijuana use rates by whites makes it clear that Black and Latino New Yorkers are being subjected to disparate policing.”

Alisa Wellek, Co-Executive Director of the Immigrant Defense Project said: “In this era of mass deportation, immigrants who encounter police or who have prior convictions, even for one marijuana offense are increasingly at risk of deportation. The Fairness and Equity Act is a critical step in safeguarding all our communities from discriminatory policing and harmful drug policies.”

Donna Lieberman, executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union said: “New York State’s marijuana laws are painfully out of date, needlessly harsh and have a devastating impact on communities of color from Buffalo to Brooklyn. Every year we are needlessly pushing tens of thousands of New Yorkers into the criminal justice system without reducing serious crime or enhancing public safety. This legislation is a tremendous step toward a sane approach to marijuana policy, and we applaud its sponsors for standing up and doing the right thing.”

Juan Cartegna, president of LatinoJustice PRLDEF said: “Nationally the war on marijuana unnecessarily ensnares hundreds of thousands of people into the criminal justice system every year for simple possession – exposing the hypocrisy of the very lawmakers who ignore this problem even when they themselves committed the act in their youth. In New York, arrest data confirms that Latinos are arrested at nearly four times the rate of whites with devastating impacts.  This must end. The negative consequences of a marijuana conviction in New York and across the country cannot be overstated— these low-level offenses and arrests can affect eligibility for employment, child custody determinations, and equally important, immigration status. It’s well-beyond the time to talk openly about the racialized consequences about this selective and discriminatory enforcement scheme – and to do something about it.”

Keeshan Harley, 19, member of Make the Road NY said: “Marijuana decriminalization is important because the policies of the war on drugs disproportionately affect communities of color and the consequences of these policies will follow them for the rest of their lives.”

Kirsten John Foy of National Action Network said: “The criminalization of marijuana has been a major cog in the cradle to prison pipeline. The marijuana front in the war on drugs has left hundreds of thousands of people of color socially, politically and economically maimed, paralyzed and traumatized. It's time to systematically disassemble this pipeline and remove its cogs, like the criminalization of marijuana, from criminal justice law and public policy.”

Alison Wilkey, Director of Policy and Legal Services at Youth Represent said: “Too many teenagers are prosecuted in adult criminal courts for simple marijuana possession in New York. Even an arrest can cause problems later down the road when a young person applies for a job, an internship, or college. Erecting lifetime barriers to achievement and success before our kids have even grown up, solely for marijuana possession, doesn't make sense.”

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

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