Governor Andrew M. Cuomo today, joined by legislators, district attorneys, and law enforcement officials, announced legislation that would make the penalties for private and public possession of small amounts of marijuana the same, thereby bringing consistency and fairness to New York State's Penal Law. This new law will save thousands of New Yorkers, who are disproportionately Black and Hispanic youth, from unnecessary misdemeanor charges.
"Today's announcement is about creating fairness and consistency in our laws since there is a blatant inconsistency in the way we deal with small amounts of marijuana possession," said Governor Cuomo. "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. 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 justice system that doesn't discriminate based on age or color."
Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver said, "What Governor Cuomo is proposing, is a logical and, unfortunately, necessary clarification of the law as it exists today. It has become clear that marijuana possession is being used, regrettably, to permanently scar and taint the records of thousands of young citizens, predominantly people of color, who have no record of prior criminal conviction. It is excessive on its face and we need to address the issue thoughtfully and swiftly."
Assemblymember Karim Camara, Chair of the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus, said, "We commend Governor Cuomo for working to bring fairness to our justice system. This legislation will ensure that possession of a small amount of marijuana, whether public or private, is treated as a violation and not as a misdemeanor. This minor offense has dragged down the future of too many New Yorkers, particularly minority youth, leading to the deterioration of communities across the state. By properly updating the law, the Governor is helping to create a safer and stronger state for all New Yorkers."
Assemblymember Hakeem Jeffries said, "Today, Governor Andrew Cuomo is advancing legislation to standardize penalties associated with marijuana possession, in order to end existing practices, which needlessly scars thousands of lives and waste millions of dollars in law enforcement resources, while detracting from the prosecution of serious crime. For years, thousands of New Yorkers, who are disproportionately Black and Latino youth, have been charged with unnecessary misdemeanors, thereby creating barriers for future employment and intensifying tensions between law enforcement and communities. This legislation will ensure that individuals who possess small amounts of marijuana are sanctioned appropriately while avoiding permanent damage on their records. I thank the Governor for treating all New Yorkers justly under New York State law."
Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly said, "The proposed legislation takes a balanced approach and comports with the spirit of the NYPD operations order issued on the subject last year. Further, the department's ongoing quality of life enforcement is supported by preserving the penalties for smoking marijuana in public."
Under the current New York State Penal Law individuals in possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana, open to public view, can be charged with a Class B misdemeanor. Private possession of the same amount of marijuana is a finable violation. This legislation would make all possession of small amounts of marijuana, public or private, a finable offense. Burning marijuana in a public place will remain a misdemeanor.
The Marijuana Reform Act, signed by Governor Hugh Carey in 1977, made private possession of a small amount of marijuana a violation punishable by a maximum fine of $100 for first time drug offenders. Marijuana in public view remained a misdemeanor.
In the years since the passage of that law, arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana have jumped from approximately 2,000 in 1990 to over 50,000 today -- mainly in New York City, where 94% of the arrests occur each year.
The increasing emphasis on minor marijuana arrests has a disproportionate impact on minority youth. Of the individuals who were arrested in New York State last year, over 50% were under 25 years old and 82% were either Black or Hispanic. Of those 53,124 arrests, less than 10% were ever convicted of a crime. For those arrested, as well as for the small number convicted, that blemish on their records remains a barrier to future employment.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance, Jr. said, "Safety and fairness are the twin pillars of our criminal justice system. That is why I support Governor Cuomo's proposed changes to the law governing possession of marijuana. This simple and fair change will help us redirect significant resources to the most violent criminals and serious crime problems, and, frankly, it is the right thing to do."
Brooklyn District Attorney Charles J. Hynes said, "I fully support Governor Cuomo's change in the marijuana law. This legislation will go a long way toward a more balanced approach to drug related offenses and complement other progressive initiatives already serving our community. It will lead to a more efficient use of law enforcement resources. I applaud Governor Cuomo's leadership on this matter."
Queens County District Attorney Richard A. Brown said, "The proposed legislation strikes the appropriate balance between the needs of law enforcement and the concerns of the community. We join our colleagues in law enforcement in supporting the governor's legislation which will enhance the fair operation of our criminal justice system."
Bronx District Attorney Robert T. Johnson said, "Simply put, there is no need for the "public view" portion of this law. The legislature has already decided that possession of small amounts of marijuana is of minimal concern to our society. Governor Cuomo's proposal would make the law consistent and obviate the need for many arrests which erode the trust between the community and law enforcement."
Staten Island District Attorney Daniel M. Donovan Jr. said, "The Governor was prudent to address some of the concerns that I and other prosecutors had when these changes were first proposed. The law will continue to address the disturbance caused by people who openly smoke marijuana in public, and does not prevent officers from requiring identification from a violator, thus ensuring that someone wanted for a serious crime does not get away with just a ticket. On the other hand, I am hopeful the NYPD will be able to reallocate some of its resources to address more serious crimes, and to continue to keep this city the safest big city in America."
Nassau County District Attorney Kathleen Rice said, "Through this common sense reform of the penal code, which encourages fairness and consistency in the law, Governor Cuomo is enhancing community relationships with law enforcement. As a prosecutor, I know our relationship with the community is the most important tool we have in keeping neighborhoods safe. This reform will enable police officers to continue making our streets safer while focusing on more serious crimes. I applaud his efforts and I look forward to implementing these necessary changes."
New York City Patrolmen's Benevolent Association President Patrick J. Lynch said, "The Governor's call for the changes in police response to contraband discovered pursuant to a properly conducted stop, question and frisk make sense and runs parallel with a recent policy change issued by the Police Commissioner. The NYC PBA is very supportive of clear and precise directions to its members regarding their police responsibilities in specific instances."
Gabriel Sayegh, New York State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance, said, "Overly punitive charges have a harmful effect on our justice system. They can ruin lives, waste taxpayer money on unneeded trials, and breed distrust between communities and law enforcement. Currently, this is the case with public possession of small amounts of marijuana, particularly for communities of color, but with Governor Cuomo's legislation, this injustice can soon be a thing of the past. The Governor should be commended for his leadership and for his continued efforts to make our justice system fairer for all New Yorkers."
Donna Lieberman, Executive Director of the New York Civil Liberties Union, said, "Communities and law enforcement must work together as partners in order to keep our state safe. However, unreasonably harsh charges for small offenses erode the trust that is necessary for this partnership to succeed. That is why Governor Cuomo's legislation is so important. By making the penalty for public and private possession of minor amounts of marijuana a violation, this legislation will help restore trust between communities and law enforcement. In the end, New York will be a safer state because of this legislation."