May 22, 2013Members of the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus, along with Vocal NY, rallied at the Million Dollar Staircase in the Capitol Wednesday to protest current stop-and-frisk practices and push for a bill that would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana.
With statistics showing that 82 percent of young individuals arrested for marijuana possession are either Black or Latino — even though more white high school seniors use marijuana than minorities — the lawmakers believe the penalty for carrying small amounts of marijuana is a gateway to racial profiling by law enforcement.
"It's not in the best interests of society to give these young men and women a criminal record. It's not right," said Assemblyman Karim Camara, D-Brooklyn. "Many of them are first time offenders; non-violent, [with a] small amount for recreational purposes. Many times it's because of stop-and-frisk. You're told to empty out your pockets and at the snap of a finger you go from a summons to a misdemeanor."
The recently amended bills (A.6716-a/S.3105-a) would decriminalize marijuana in a public place open to public view that weighs less than 15 grams. Any amount of marijuana is a misdemeanor only when it is being burned in a public place. Camara, sponsor of the bill, said the opposition to the bill is confused about its initial intention, calling it a legalization of marijuana.
"Everybody's talking about the bill and some people are misunderstanding what we are saying … That we're trying to legalize marijuana and we're not," Camara said. "What we're saying is that we want to stop injustices that are perpetrating against primarily black and Latino males."
According to information from the Drug Policy Alliance, New York's white demographic, making up over 65 percent of the population, accounts for 14 percent of arrests for marijuana possession and the state's Black and Latino population, 34 percent, accounts for 82 percent of marijuana arrests. Advocates for reforming stop-and-frisk policies say this is due largely to illegal searches and racial profiling.
"I'm here to tell you that I'm not prepared to put people's constitutional rights on the line," said Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson, D-Mount Vernon. "People of color want to be safe in their communities but not at the risk of their constitutional rights."
The Drug Policy Alliance says it costs taxpayers between $1,000 and $2,000 to process a single arrest for possession. New York spent almost $70 million in arrests related to marijuana possession in 2012 and over $1 billion in the last decade. The Marijuana Reform Act of 1977 intended to decrease marijuana arrests because of the costs related to prosecution and law enforcement resources, distracting them from more serious crimes. The Act said such arrests and prosecution are "wasteful" and "inappropriate."
"What happened in the seventies was radical when they said that we're going to legalize small amounts of marijuana that are concealed," said Camara. "All we're saying is that this a minute shift in the law."
A poll released Monday from the Sienna Research Institute shows that 60 percent of New Yorkers support measures to fix marijuana possession laws.
"The people that voted last year they put the Democrats in office," said Assemblyman Walter Mosley, D-Brooklyn. "We truly represent the demographics of the great state of New York."
In his State of the State Address, Gov. Andrew Cuomo included stop-and-frisk and legalizing concealed smaller amounts of marijuana in his policies he advocated for. The bills, also sponsored by Sen. Daniel Squadron, D-Carroll Gardens, were advanced to a third reading in the Assembly and recommitted to the Senate Committee on Codes earlier this month. Lawmakers who attended the event in the Capitol said they are adamant about getting the bill passed before the session ends.