New York State Assembly Passes Legislation To Fix Marijuana Possession Law

Press Release May 28, 2013
Media Contact

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

ALBANY:  Today, the New York State Assembly passed the marijuana arrest reform bill (A.6716-A) that could end the state’s racially biased, costly and unlawful marijuana arrest crusade. The legislation fixes New York’s 1977 marijuana decriminalization law by making possession of small amounts marijuana in public view a violation punishable by a fine, instead of a criminal arrest.  The bill now heads to the Senate, where a similar measure has been sponsored by Sen. Daniel Squadron. Governor Andrew Cuomo has identified this legislation as one of his key priorities for the 2013 legislative session.

New York State decriminalized personal possession 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.” But over the last decade, hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers have been arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana because of a loophole in the law, which this legislation would fix.  The bill was introduced by Brooklyn Assemblymember Karim Camara, and co-sponsored by Speaker Sheldon Silver, Codes Committee Chair Joseph Lentol, and nearly every member of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus, which Camara chairs.

The vote on the bill was 80-59. One of the “yes” votes was from Assemblyman Steven Katz (R-Hudson Valley), whose recent arrest for marijuana possession caused a stir in Albany.

A poll released last week by the Siena Research Institute found that 60% of New Yorkers support Governor Cuomo’s proposal to fix the state’s broken marijuana possession law, making it the third poll this year to register at least 60% support for the measure. The reform is supported by dozens of community organizations throughout the state, state legislators, the NYC Council, and Mayor Bloomberg. Additionally, the reforms are supported by law enforcement leaders from across the state, including NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly; all five NYC District Attorneys (Democrat and Republican); District Attorneys from Long Island, Buffalo and Albany; and other police leaders, like the Albany Sheriff and Rochester Police Chief. The New York Times, Daily News, New York Post, Syracuse Times-Standard, and Buffalo News are among the papers that have written editorials in support the of the reform.

“For too long, a loophole in the 1977 marijuana possession law led to  the law being applied differently to different groups people based solely on race, age and geography,” said Assemblywoman Karim Camara. “By closing this loophole and standardizing the law, this legislation will help restore fairness, equity, and sensibility to our marijuana possession laws. Marijuana remains illegal, and penalties for possessing it remain on the books, but no longer will someone incur a lifelong criminal record for simple possession. This is a civil rights issue, and I’m proud of my colleagues in the Assembly for passing this important bill. Now it’s time for our colleagues in the Senate to act, so we can deliver this bill to Governor Cuomo for his signature.”

"By reforming the marijuana possession law, the Assembly acknowledges that our drug laws have been hurting the state of New York and not improving it,” said Assemblyman Robert Rodriguez of East Harlem.  “Families, law enforcement and taxpayers need smarter approaches instead of these counterproductive policies.”

“Each day that the crisis of rampant marijuana arrests in New York goes unaddressed, hundreds of young people lose the opportunity to fully participate in our state’s economy and local communities. The use of this loophole in our drug laws to target and criminalize Black and Latino youth is not only ethically wrong, but it is bad economic policy,” said Assemblyman Walter Mosley. “By standardizing penalties for marijuana possession with the laws that have been in effect since 1977, we will save taxpayer money, provide broader opportunity for social growth, and promote greater fairness throughout the State of New York.”

Approximately 45,000 people were arrested in New York for marijuana possession in 2012; nearly 40,000 of those arrests were in New York City, far exceeding the total marijuana arrests for the fifteen-year period from 1981-1995. The cost to taxpayers was nearly $75 million last year alone, and over $600 million in the last decade – a profound waste of taxpayer money.

The arrest often occurs when someone complies with a police officer’s directive to  “empty your pockets,” during a stop-and-frisk encounter. Many people comply, even though they’re not legally required to do so. If a person pulls marijuana from their pocket or bag, it is then “open to public view.” The police then arrest the person for possessing marijuana in “public view”. While NYPD claims that the rationale for its stop-and-frisk program is getting guns off the street, stop-and-frisk has instead led to hundreds of thousands of arrests for marijuana possession.

These arrests are extraordinarily racially biased, as nearly 85% of those arrested are Black and Latino – mostly young men – even though government studies show that young white men use marijuana at higher rates. These young people are saddled with a permanent arrest record that can follow them for the rest of their lives – easily found on the internet by banks, schools, employers, landlords, and licensing boards.

"New York's marijuana arrests are illegal, racist and need to end now," says Alfredo Carrasquillo, civil rights organizer at VOCAL-NY. "We are spending millions of dollars on needless arrests that do nothing for our communities beyond introducing hundreds of thousands of black and Latino New Yorkers to the criminal justice system. Legislators in Albany need to do the right thing – stop targeting our communities for illegal arrests and pass this legislation today.”

“The passing of this bill is a critical step toward taking a public health approach to drug policy and community safety,” said Kyung-Ji Kate Rhee, director of the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform & Alternatives. “It is also an important building block for addressing civil rights violations taking place in low-income communities of color, especially against black and brown youth.  This bill signals the burgeoning power and mounting outcry from communities that are stepping forward to take back our children and youth who are saying, ‘teach us, don't cuff us’.”

“For generations, New York’s young adults of color have faced an uphill battle to overcome the harsh penalties that our criminal justice system has imposed on those charged with the possession of small amounts of marijuana,” said Assemblywoman Vanessa L. Gibson of the Bronx. “Throughout the years, those penalties have blocked thousands of New Yorkers from achieving their dreams and worsened the disparities that have often divided our state upon racial and ethnic lines. The Assembly’s passage of this legislation is an important step towards finally balancing the scales of justice and assuring that future generations don’t have to carry the burden that goes with the stigma of a criminal record,” Assemblywoman Gibson said.

“The criminalization of low-level marijuana possession affects thousands of our youth every year,” said Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes.  “The disparity among communities of color is insurmountable and the passage of this bill will affect generations of youth who normally would have been facing strict fines and/or jail time.  I am pleased that the passage. Those circumstances can impair the futures of our youth in employment, education and raising their families.”

"Thank you Assemblyman Karim Camara, Speaker Silver and the NY State Assembly for demonstrating leadership by creating smarter, fairer drug policies," said gabriel sayegh, New York State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. "Ending blatant and rampant discrimination and wasteful practices should be a top priority in Albany. It's time for the Senate to act and send this bill to Governor Cuomo for his signature."

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

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