If Gov. Andrew Cuomo has his way, those caught carrying a small amount of marijuana will no longer necessarily be sent to jail.
Cuomo said today, for the first time, that he wants to change state law to decriminalize carrying small amounts of marijuana.
Cuomo's legislation would mean that the penalty for visibly carrying small amounts of marijuana would be just a ticket, and would not involve being detained.
Right now, the penalty for those caught possessing 25 grams or less of marijuana is a violation that carries a maximum fine of $100. But if that marijuana is in public view -- whether you're smoking it or emptying your pockets for a cop -- that is a misdemeanor crime. Those caught are arrested and taken to jail.
Last year, 50,000 people were arrested on low-level marijuana arrests. Most of those people would no longer be arrested under Cuomo's suggestion -- unless that person was caught actively smoking marijuana, which would still be a misdemeanor.
"The fact of the matter is that black and Latino men are the most likely
to be stopped, questioned and frisked and are then ordered to empty
their pockets during these encounters," said City Council Speaker Christine Quinn. "Low-level arrests for marijuana
can have devastating life-long consequences."
Critics say people are stopped and frisked by the police who ask them to empty their pockets, putting the marijuana into public view and ensnaring them in violation of the law. Then, they say, tens of thousands are unfairly arrested.
An arrest for small amounts of marijuana can lead to a criminal record – not to mention putting employment in jeopardy if a person misses work. Job applicants often must also include arrests on most applications.
Woodhaven, N.Y., resident Brian Pearson, 35, was on his way to work in January when cops found the remainder of a smoked joint in his cousin's car, who was driving him to the train in Crown Heights. Both men were arrested.
After missing three days of work, and several more for court appearances, the charges were dismissed when a urine test came back negative for marijuana, he said.
"It was real scary," he said. "Everything was on the line."
After mounting criticism over the pot arrests, Police Commissioner Ray Kelly told officers last year not to arrest people taking small amounts of marijuana out during stops. But Cuomo's law change proposal would be the first time New York officially categorizes this as not a crime.
Mayor Michael Bloomberg said today he supported Cuomo's legislation.
A life derailed after arrest
Alfredo Carrasquillo, 28, a Yonkers resident and community organizer with Vocal New York, an activist group focusing on incarceration and drug use, said he lost a job after he missed four days of work following a marijuana arrest.
"I had to go back on welfare," he said. "It forced me to be back on a lower position when I worked so hard."
This wasn't the first time cops had taken him in after finding marijuana during a stop-and-frisk incident, he said. Another time, he spent 24 hours in jail when he was stopped on the way to a friend's house.
Many he shared a cell with were in on similar charges, he said. "I've been arrested with individuals who literally were crying because they were going to lose their jobs."
He added, "Not only do you lose your job, it affects your whole life."
By the numbers
600K More than 600,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in the last 15 years, according to the Drug Police Alliance
50k More than 50,000 people were arrested for low-level marijuana possession in 2011, according to the Drug Policy Alliance
What happens now?
Cuomo doesn't have a lot of time to change the law -- legislation would have to pass the state Assembly and Senate before the legislative session comes to a close at the end of this month. Despite yesterday's announcement, earlier this year, Cuomo said he would not push for medical marijuana to be legalized in the state. "I think the risks outweigh the benefits at this point," he told reporters in April.