New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has called for the decriminalization of public possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana. In a state with fairly harsh Rockefeller-era drug laws, this would be a modest change.
Saying the aim was to avoid unnecessary misdemeanor charges against thousands of New Yorkers — “disproportionately black and Hispanic youth,” according to a statement from the governor’s office — the legislation “brings consistency and fairness” to New York’s marijuana laws.
“There is a blatant inconsistency. If you possess marijuana privately it is a violation, if you show it in public it’s a crime. It’s incongruous. It’s inconsistent the way it has been enforced,” Cuomo told reporters at a press conference in Albany on Monday.
In 1977, New York’s legislature reduced the penalty for possessing 25 grams or less of marijuana to a non-criminal violation carrying a fine of no more than $100 for first-time offenders — as long as the marijuana was in private possession and not in public view.
If the marijuana is out and viewable in public — as it might be when someone is asked to empty his or her pockets during a so-called police “stop and frisk” — it becomes a Class B misdemeanor.
This sounds technical, but given the ubiquity of “stop and frisk” in New York City, this is actually one of the primary ways that young black and Hispanic youths get into the criminal justice system. And because of our draconian laws that strip rights from prisoners, it helps to create a permanent economic and social underclass. If you have no voting rights, no ability to secure housing or a job, you’re likely to go back to jail. And that’s how ex-convicts get on that treadmill back to prison, in many cases started with a pot possession conviction. In the case of New York we’re talking about tens of thousands of people.
Cuomo is not my idea of a good Governor. He’s an economic conservative, and there are signs that he’s quite deeply corrupt. But he has used his popularity once to push forward a social issue dear to the left, on marriage equality. And I wouldn’t even call decriminalization a social issue. Because of the disenfranchising aspects it’s an economic issue, not just because of the cost of warehousing tens of thousands of nonviolent drug offenders, but because of the havoc you cause in their lives, with ripple effects to tens of thousands of families, as a result. We are in addition having a breakdown in our public capacity to spend at the state level because of punitive sentencing, which actually led one district judge to retirement rather than bear the harm he was causing. And you can add in the financial windfall that the banking industry gets from facilitating world drug trade. The drug war is absolutely poisonous, and there’s no indication that it works, either. Decriminalization has a good track record in places like Portugal, by contrast.
Given the insane trend toward “tough on crime” policies in the US, I do commend Cuomo for using his clout to take on this issue. He could even go further, but this is progress. And if this represents an ambitious politician pandering to the left, you could hardly pick a more surprising cause.