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Why Are New York's Pot Laws So Awful?

The progressive capital of the nation doesn't need a draconian marijuana policy.



In his 2013 State of the State address last month, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo proposed reducing the penalty for possession of 15 grams of cannabis or less in public view. Since 1977, New York State law has provided that any amount of cannabis that is burning or in public view is a crime, a Class B misdemeanor, which is punishable by up to three months in jail and a fine of up to $500. Governor Cuomo proposed that public view possession of 15 grams or less should be a civil violation, which means no jail time and a maximum fine of $100. 

As a putative 2016 presidential candidate who claims to want New York State to “remain [the] progressive capital of the nation,” Governor Cuomo’s modest proposal on public view cannabis possession and his opposition to medical cannabis aren’t sufficiently progressive. New York State has a proud history of progressive, intelligent leadership on cannabis policy, but since the mid-'90s, the law-enforcement industrial complex has driven state cannabis policy and allowed other states to pass us by. New York State needs real, radical reform of its cannabis laws and policies, which have been a catastrophe for our civil rights, finances and public health.

New York City’s Cannabis Arrest Crusade: The Beginning of the End, or Just Sops to Keep Stop-and-Frisk? 

New York City added cannabis to its list of prohibited drugs in 1914, and New York State made cannabis sales a crime in 1927. In 1977, New York State made possession of up to 25 grams of cannabis in private a civil violation, but possession of any amount of cannabis that is burning or in public view is a crime. Since 1997, the NYPD has made over 600,000 arrests in its cannabis arrest crusade, mostly of young black and Latino men. In 2011, the NYPD made 50,684 arrests for simple cannabis possession, the second highest number in New York City history. 

Most of the people arrested for cannabis possession weren’t smoking it when they were arrested, and only had a small amount of cannabis on them when they were searched, usually illegally, by the NYPD. In contrast, in the rest of New York State (which contains over 57% of the state's population and is governed by the same cannabis laws as New York City), there were only 41,412 arrests for simple cannabis possession from 1997 to 2011 -- almost 93% less than the arrests in New York City alone during the same period.  

Being convicted for criminal possession of cannabis results in a permanent criminal record and its collateral consequences on housing, employment and education. The cost of that destruction of human capital dwarfs the $75 million or more a year it costs New York City to arrest and jail people for simple cannabis possession. However, as of next month, New York City cannabis users who are arrested for possessing small amounts will be issued a desk appearance ticket (DAT) and released instead of being held overnight by the NYPD (as long as they present ID and have no outstanding warrants).  

While many drug reformers are lauding Mayor Bloomberg for this shift in NYPD practice, as Harry G. Levine pointed out his recent post here, being issued a DAT still entails a full custodial arrest, handcuffs, an involuntary visit to the precinct, being photographed and fingerprinted, being locked up in a holding pen and a permanent criminal record. And although New York City’s arrests for simple cannabis possession dropped to 39,000 last year (a decrease of 22% from 2011 and the lowest number since 2006), that’s still almost a Citi Field full of cannabis arrestees. 

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