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Assembly bill decriminalizes public pot

June 03, 2013
A bill that would decriminalize less than 15 grams of marijuana in

public view passed the Assembly with an 80-to-60 vote, although smoking marijuana in public would still remain a misdemeanor.

The bill (A.6716-a/S.3105-a) sponsored by Assemblyman Karim Camara, D-Brooklyn, chair of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus, was delivered to the Senate and referred to the Codes Committee to await a decision.

According to the bill's language, the purpose is to "keep New York safe by bringing fairness and consistency in the penalties administered by New Yorkers who possess small amounts of marijuana."

"For too long a loophole in the 1977 marijuana possession law allowed it to be applied differently to different groups of people based solely on race, age and geography," Camara said. "By closing this loophole and standardizing the law, this legislation will help restore fairness, equity and sensibility to our marijuana possession laws. Marijuana remains illegal and penalties for possessing it remain on the books, but no longer will someone incur a lifelong criminal record for simple possession. This is a civil rights issue."

According to Camara's office, approximately 45,000 people were arrested in New York for marijuana possession in 2012, of which 40,000 were in the New York City area. Roughly, 85 percent of those arrested were young black and Latino men, although some studies show that young white men use the drug at a higher rate. The bill comes on the heel of the "stop-and-frisk" policy debate involving tactics by the New York City Police Department.

The Drug Policy Alliance released a statement following the passage of the bill saying that arrests occur when officers direct someone to empty their pockets revealing that they have the drug on them. Once the marijuana is revealed it is considered to be "open to the public view." The police then have the authority to arrest the person for possessing marijuana in public view because of the stop-and-frisk policy, which the Drug Policy Alliance say is "extraordinarily racially biased."

The bill proposes that public possession of less than 15 grams of marijuana be handled in the same manner as private possession. Under the law, possession of marijuana in a public place is considered a class B misdemeanor.

One of the "yes" votes on the bill came from Assemblyman Steven Katz, R-Mohegan Lake, who was arrested and charged with marijuana possession in March. Katz was stopped for speeding on the Thruway. A state trooper noted the odor of marijuana emanating from the car and found a "small bag" of marijuana in Katz's possession. The charges against Katz were dropped pending his co mpletion of community service.

"The bill works to close loopholes in the Marijuana Reform Act of 1977 and seeks to reduce the costs associated with marijuana violations in our justice system," Katz said. "Rather than requiring excessive time and effort by our police force to deal with a small amount of marijuana, violators will be issued a ticket for a court date, which law enforcement has indicated will bring clarity to the current policy and make enforcement easier. While the bill does not change much of our current law, it is my hope that this bill will promote a broader discussion of our state's policies."

The Drug Policy Alliance reports that the approximately 45,000 people arrested for marijuana possession in the state last year exceeds the total for marijuana arrests in the 15-year period between 1981 and 1995. The arrests cost taxpayers nearly $75 million in the last year and more than $600 million in the last decade for what they call "a profound waste of taxpayer money."

In a recent poll released by the Siena Research Institute, 60 percent of people polled said they support decriminalizing the possession of 15 grams or less of marijuana in public view, reducing it from a misdemeanor to a violation subject to a crime.

The poll questioned 623 registered New York state voters with a margin of error of 3.9 percentage points.

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