Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson is joined by Senator Daniel Squadron and supporters of a bill that would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana in public to help reduce stop-and-frisk incidents by New York City police, right. Lawmakers who support the reforms say the Senate is ignoring a racial injustice by not passing it. Photo by Richard Moody.
June 17, 2013Supporters of a marijuana reform bill say that some senators are willingly turning a blind eye to racial disparities and the fiscal costs of prosecuting minor marijuana possession cases.
The marijuana reform bill (S.03105-a) would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in public view, making it a violation rather than misdemeanor. Proponents of the reform say police officers use the current law as a justification for conducting stop-and-frisk searches in urban areas. The penalties for burning or smoking marijuana in public would remain the same.
"There are few bills if passed that would have an immediate impact on everyday lives of New Yorkers but the bill that were talking about today is such a bill," said Assemblyman Karim Camara, D-Brooklyn.
Shapriece Townsend would understand the impact to his life. The soon-to-be father of two worries that his children will have to face the same discrimination he did.
"I was racing to get back on time to my grandmother's house, to get back on time to my shelter, when I got my leg pinned against the fence," Townsend said. "Two cars stopped and two officers with guns drawn jumped out. Next minute I wind up getting my pockets searched and I had a small bag of marijuana. Next minute I'm getting arrested. I spent three days in jail."
A new American Civil Liberties Union study shows that New York is the leading state for marijuana arrests. A New York Civil Liberties Union report shows the racial disparities of marijuana arrests are 4.5 times greater for black New Yorkers than their white counter parts.
The estimated annual fiscal cost of marijuana possession enforcement in New York is $678 million.
"Look, the NYCLU just told us what we already knew," said Sen. Daniel Squadron, D-Carroll Gardens, sponsor of the Senate bill.
Squadron said the bill can't wait another year because of its negative impacts on black and Latino youth.
"This is an unfair law but is also driving our police policies our court policies away from focusing on real crimes that have real impacts on people, instead shifting to the easy 'gotcha' where we ruin young people's lives," said Senator Liz Krueger, D- Manhattan.
The bill passed in the Assembly last month but has failed to make it to a floor vote in the Senate.
To bring it to the Senate floor would require a discharge petition: requiring 34 members of the Senate to go against Senate leadership. However, backers of the marijuana law reform suspect that many senators are reluctant to embarrass conference leaders and sign the discharge petition.
"Were here today to call to the Senate leadership to put this bill to a vote; New Yorkers want it," Camara said.
However, not everyone believes it is just up to the Senate to get this bill voted on. When asked if Gov. Andrew Cuomo was making the bill a priority, Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson, D-Bronx, said she doesn't believe the governor is doing enough. "He has demonstrated in the past that anything that he has wanted he has made it happen. We are disappointed that we're at this point and somewhere at the bottom of the list of priorities."
"I don't know what it's going to take frankly, because we've done just about everything here," said Gabriel Sayegh, state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "We've got mounds of research piles of data and demonstrate that this is ineffective, racially bias, and unjust and costly. What is it that actually needs to happen now? What is it that these folks need to do? Do they need an experience themselves where they are racially profiled?"
Camara and other members of Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus, VOCAL-NY and other advocates hope the bill will come to a vote before the end of session.
"If this bill doesn't pass this year that is a very significant marker about what is happening inside this chamber right now in the state of New York. Our legislative Leaders believe that discriminatory practices, violations of civil rights and fiscal waste are appropriate for this state. This is a racial justice bill, pass the bill. Do they believe in fiscal equity? Pass the bill. Do they believe in public safety? Pass the bill. If you don't then don't pass the bill," Sayegh said.