Marijuana penalty reduction proposals in New York

Cannabis Sativa in a Cage
(Photo credit: Mrs Logic)

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has proposed big changes in marijuana policy in his state:

“There’s a blatant inconsistency. If you possess marijuana privately, it’s a violation. If you show it in public, it’s a crime,” Cuomo said. “It’s incongruous. It’s inconsistent the way it’s been enforced. There have been additional complications in relation to the stop-and-frisk policy where there’s claims young people could have a small amount of marijuana in their pocket, where they’re stopped and frisked. The police officer says, `Turn out your pockets.’ The marijuana is now in public view. It just went from a violation to a crime.”

New York City prosecutors and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, whose offices handled almost 50,000 such criminal cases last year, endorsed the Democratic governor’s plan. Mayor Michael Bloomberg said the bill largely mirrors the city police directive issued last year for officers to issue violations, not misdemeanors, “for small amounts of marijuana that come into open view during a search.”

Possession of less than 25 grams was reduced in state law to a violation in 1977, subject to a ticket and fine. If the pot is burning or in public view, it rises to a misdemeanor that leads to an arrest. Cuomo’s proposal differs from pending Assembly and Senate bills because it leaves public pot smoking as a criminal misdemeanor.

Cuomo acknowledged the existing approach disproportionately affects minority youths, with 94 percent of arrests in New York City, more than half of those arrested younger than 25 and 82 percent either black or Hispanic. He also defended keeping smoking pot a crime. “I believe the society does want to discourage the use of marijuana in public, on the street. Smoking a joint, I think, is a different level of activity than just being in possession of it,” he said.

According to advocates for decriminalizing it, 14 states, including Oregon and Massachusetts, have lowered penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana to civil fines in a movement that began in the 1970s. Since 1996, 16 states, including California, have legalized its use for medical conditions, though New York has not.

To me, this policy strikes a good balance. I’m not a fan of the term decriminalization. Some articles have referred to the proposal as penalty reduction. I like this better. Though I’m not sure there is a universally accepted definition of decriminalization, but it generally refers to reducing possession from an offense generally punished by incarceration to an offense generally punished by fines.

To me, the term decriminalization implies that offenses like speeding are not crimes. (Am I missing something? If so, set me straight.) Penalty reduction just seems more accurate.

I’ve seen a lot of posts and articles commenting that this is a “good start” or “a step in the right direction.” I wish people would be a little clearer and more complete with these thoughts. What is the end they have in mind? Legalization? Legalization of what? Legalization of all quantities? Legalization of all drugs? Legalized sales? Legalized marketing? Legalized manipulation of the drug and consumption methods to intensify the effect? Is the model alcohol and tobacco?

It feels a little cheap and easy to make these pronouncements without taking responsibility to flesh out what you really mean.

Another question that these stories beg is this. It appears that, if passed, this bill would seek to get enforcement entities to follow the intent of NY’s 1977 marijuana law. Could enforcement entities come up with a way to circumvent this law too? What motivates enforcement entities to behave this way—what explains the disconnect between the apparently clear legislative intent and the law enforcement practice? Was it limited to marijuana laws, or do they take a similar approach with other laws? Was it limited to New York City, or was this practice common in NY State?

UPDATE: One more thought. What lessons can we learn from the K2 and Spice controversy? Even if you have a point of view that predisposes you to dismiss the matter, you should be interested in what kind of policy is sustainable and this appears to be an opportunity to learn something about the limits of the public’s tolerance for a legal drug.