NY Governor Cuomo Announces Support for Closing Major Loophole in State’s Marijuana Decriminalization Law; Bloomberg and Kelly Follow Suit

Press Release June 3, 2012
Media Contact

Tony Newman 646-335-5384 or Kyung Ji Rhee 347-712-0259 or Alfredo Carrasquillo 718-415-9254</p>

Today, New York Governor Cuomo, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly all came out in support of ending the practice of arresting individuals for possessing small amounts of marijuana in public view. They acknowledged what advocacy groups, researchers, and elected officials have exposed as the NYPD’s unlawful practice mischarging and arresting people for marijuana possession after an illegal search or when the person complies with an NYPD officer’s directive to “empty their pockets”. This process, the Governor and advocates believe, needlessly criminalizes young people – especially young people of color – and harms the relationship between law enforcement and the community.

The announcement comes on the heels of growing pressure from lawmakers and reform advocates. A campaign led by the Drug Policy Alliance, the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives, and VOCAL has gained the support of City Council members and state legislators. The bi-partisan legislation in Albany, S.5187 (Grisanti) / A.7620 (Jeffries), would standardize penalties for marijuana possession, ending tens of thousands of racially biased and unlawful arrests for marijuana possession every year. A Resolution in the New York City Council, 0986, calls for an end to these arrests by supporting the legislation in Albany.

While advocates applauded these developments, they also expressed caution:

“Governor Cuomo has demonstrated real leadership and with his recognition that the NYPD is unlawfully arresting tens of thousands of young people; this is a tremendous advancement to ending these egregious police practices,” said Gabriel Sayegh, New York State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “We cannot have laws applied differently to different groups of people when the dividing line is race. The legislature must now act and reform these policies, and only then will New York fully realize the intent of the 1977 marijuana decriminalization law.”

“Governor Cuomo's call is well appreciated and welcomed by a growing coalition of faith and civil rights leaders who have been working to ensure a jail-free future for our youth by 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,’ said   Kyung Ji Kate Rhee of  Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives, a division of Center for NuLeadership.

The arrest statistics say it all. Just 34,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession from 1981 to 1995 – but in the last 15 years over 600,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession. More than 50,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2011 alone, far exceeding the total marijuana arrests from 1981-1995. Most of those arrested, nearly 85% are Black and Latino,  despite federal government data on drug use showing that whites use marijuana at higher rates.

Most of these arrests are the result of illegal searches by the NYPD, as part of its controversial stop-and-frisk practices. Marijuana was decriminalized in New York State in 1977 – and that law is still on the books. Smoking marijuana in public or having marijuana visible in public, however, remains a crime.  Most people arrested for marijuana possession are not smoking in public, but simply have a small amount in their pocket, purse or bag. Often when police stop and question a person, they say “empty your pockets” or “open your bag.” 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.

"By taking up this issue Governor Cuomo is taking a major step forward to ending the criminalization of young men of color. This shows great leadership by our governor to address racially biased practices and restore the relationship between communities of color and our government," according to Alfredo Carrasquillo, community organizer for VOCAL New York and former victim of illegal marijuana arrests.

To make sure the legislature acts, a major coalition that includes national organizations is launching a massive push over the next two weeks of the legislative session. Tomorrow, the groups, including Color of Change, will release an online advocacy campaign featuring powerful video testimonials from people who have been illegally searched and falsely charged for marijuana possession in New York City. On June 12, hundreds of advocates will travel to Albany to pressure state leaders to pass legislation that would end the 50,000 annual low-level marijuana possession arrests in New York.

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

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