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Legislative Memo: Relating to Standardizing Penalties Associated with Marijuana Possession

This bill removes a provision from the penal code that makes it a misdemeanor to possess or burn a small amount of marijuana in public view.

This would close a loophole in the law used to unjustly arrest tens of thousands of people each year – the vast majority of whom are black or Latino. The NYCLU strongly supports this bill.

In 1977, the state legislature reduced from a misdemeanor to a violation punishable by a fine the possession of a small amount of marijuana. The 1977 amendment decriminalized the private possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana; however displaying or burning less than 25 grams of marijuana in public view remains a class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to three months in prison.

In practice, the legal distinction between possession of marijuana in one’s pocket, for example, and possession in public view has not resulted in a decrease in those arrested and charged with misdemeanor possession. In fact, the number of marijuana arrests has increased dramatically since the 1970s, despite the fact that drug use rates are down.

In 2010 alone, the NYPD made more than 50,000 arrests for possession of marijuana in the public view, according to the Division of Criminal Justice Services. Overall, 87 percent of those arrested in New York City for minor marijuana possession are black or Latino, even though government surveys of people 18 to 25 consistently show that young whites use marijuana more often than young blacks and Latinos.

This disparity is the result, at least in part, of the NYPD’s racially-skewed stop-and-frisk practices. Marijuana arrest rates in New York City correspond to NYPD stop and frisk patterns: the percentages of blacks, Latinos, and whites stopped-and-frisked mirror the percentages of each group arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana; neighborhoods with high numbers of marijuana-possession arrests also have high rates of police stop-and-frisk encounters.

The NYPD stops countless young people, mostly black and Latino, each year, asks them to empty their pockets, and then arrests them for displaying marijuana in plain sight. This loophole has led to the unjust arrests of thousands of people each year.

A.7620/S.5187 would put an end to this abusive practice by ensuring that behavior intended by the legislature to be non-criminal – the possession of small amounts of marijuana for personal use – is punished as a violation. By doing so, this bill would also help curb unfair police practices that target mostly young men of color.

Arresting and jailing tens of thousands of people each year for marijuana possession does not reduce serious or violent crime. It only creates distrust between the police and community; wastes police resources; and drives thousands of young New Yorkers into the criminal justice system. It strips young men of color of their dignity and saddles them with permanent criminal records.

For all these reasons, we strongly support this bill, and we urge the legislature to pass it.

As bold as the spirit of New York, we are the NYCLU.
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Civil Liberties Union