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New York Governor Andrew Cuomo has announced his support for legalizing small amounts of marijuana. This decision comes only two months after he denied legalizing medical marijuana. His reasoning is not because he has changed his opinion about the drug itself but because he believes one of the biggest problems for police and prosecutors is that the laws are inconsistent and police officers are wasting their time arresting people for small amounts of cannabis. The greatest challenge in creating and passing this legislation will be the Republican majority in the New York Senate.
Beginning in 1977 the New York law stated that carrying twenty-five grams or less of marijuana is not a violation as long as the individual is a first-time offender. However, having the drug out in public is still a crime, including if it is removed from a pocket during a police search. By decriminalizing small amounts individuals will be able to possess these amounts, even if they are searched by the police. The maximum penalty would be a $100 fine.
In 2011 there were 50,000 arrests made in New York for twenty-five grams or less of marijuana. According to Cuomo this is costly for the taxpayer. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus R. Vance Jr. also points out that there is a great human cost too. “The human costs to each defendant charged with a misdemeanor are serious. The simple and fair change proposed by Governor Cuomo will help us redirect significant resources to the most violent criminals and serious crime problems, and, frankly, it is the right thing to do.”
The change in policy on marijuana will also alleviate some of the charges that New York’s laws are racially prejudiced. Eighty-two percent of those arrested in 2011 for small amounts of marijuana were black or Hispanic. Many believe that this statistic demonstrates how the current marijuana policy in tandem with the New York ‘stop-and-frisk’ law are racially biased and demonstrates that police are racially profiling individuals.
New York City prosecutors and the Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly support Cuomo’s declaration. Cuomo’s proposal is very similar to a directive Mayor Bloomberg has given to the New York Police Department.
Other states are also attempting to change their policies on marijuana. Colorado will have legalization as a ballot initiative in November. Rhode Island will be discussing a bill similar to that suggested by Cuomo. The main difference between what Cuomo has proposed and what Rhode Island will try to pass is that Rhode Island would require minors found in possession of the drug to complete a drug awareness program and community service.