New York to Decriminalize Marijuana?

Governor Andrew Cuomo's proposal could give a whole new meaning to the phrase 'New York state of mind'.

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Richard T. Nowitz/Corbis

Clarification Appended: June 6, 2012

New York governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed decriminalizing the possession of small amounts of marijuana in the state and he’s got the support of New York City’s police commissioner and mayor, plus a broad swath of local politicians who just a few years ago may have scoffed at the notion of lessening penalties for drug possession.

Citing an “inconsistency” in state drug laws regarding small amounts of marijuana, Cuomo announced a bill to make the penalties for private and public possession the same, which he says will help people caught with less than 25 grams avoid “unnecessary” misdemeanor charges.

“This is an issue that disproportionately affects young people — they wind up with a permanent stain on their record for something that would otherwise be a violation,” Cuomo said in a statement. “the charge makes it more difficult for them to find a job. Together, we are making New York fairer and safer, and ensuring that every New Yorker has access to [a]  justice system that doesn’t discriminate based on age or color.”

(MORE: Mandatory Sentencing: Stalled Reform)

Currently, anyone caught with 25 grams or less of weed in their own private possession is subject to a violation. If they have it in public view or are using it, they would be subject to a class B misdemeanor, which could mean up to 90 days in jail and a permanent mark on their record. But prison overcrowding and the significantly high number of arrests for low-level possession — more than 50,000 in New York City alone last year — has encouraged policy makers and law enforcement to rethink how the law is administered. Under the new bill, less than 25 grams would be subject only to a fine.

Federally, marijuana is still illegal.

Although Cuomo’s proposal speaks to simple possession, smoking, selling or otherwise holding larger amounts will still be dealt with by the law in the same manner, which satisfies New York Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, whose department had already been issuing violations over small amounts rather than locking up offenders.

“The proposed legislation takes a balanced approach and comports with the spirit of the NYPD operations order issued on the subject last year,” Kelly said. “Further, the department’s ongoing quality of life enforcement is supported by preserving the penalties for smoking marijuana in public.”

Several legislators and district attorneys around the New York City area and even Mayor Michael Bloomberg are also supportive of Cuomo’s proposal, believing it addresses their concerns about public use of the drug. Cuomo’s bill allows them to continue to prosecute on those violations, while freeing them from dealing with people who hold minimal amounts. Bloomberg says the proposal “strikes the right balance by ensuring that the NYPD will continue to have the tools it needs to maintain public safety – including making arrests for selling or smoking marijuana.”

Advocates for drug policy reform say they are finally seeing a long-fought battle turn in their favor.

“It’s a game-changing event to get the governor involved in this,” Gabriel Sayegh, New York state director for the Drug Policy Alliance, tells TIME. He says the decades long fight against the so-called Rockefeller Drug laws  — state statutes which mandated harsh prison sentences for several types of drug possession — helped change minds that would have been opposed to such a proposal just a few years ago. “An overwhelming number of Americans believe putting people in jail for marijuana possession is a ridiculous waste of time and money.”

(MORE: New York’s Rockefeller Drug Laws)

But there are those who believe that Cuomo is making a major misstep with decriminalization and worry about the message it will send to New York’s youth.

“I find it disturbing because I believe this bill will have the effect of making marijuana use seem acceptable to young people,” said David Evans, special adviser to the Drug Free America Foundation.”What most people don’t understand is that marijuana of today is vastly different from marijuana of 20 years ago. It’s addictive and it’s quite a bit more potent, so if [the bill] is going to lessen young people’s perception on the dangers of marijuana, we’re against it.”

Sayegh, however, believes that if New York state lawmakers pass the bill, a major corner will be turned. “The legislature is going to end soon so we’ve got to get the senate to take action,” he said. “We’ve got a fight ahead, but this is different than where we’ve been before because there is almost no one coming out against this publicly.”

This story was clarified to explain that private possession of marijuana is subject to a violation and that public possession would be a misdemeanor. Also a quote from Gabriel Sayegh was amended.