Why Legalizing Marijuana in NY Would Stop Discrimination Against Black People

While Senate Republicans in Albany, New York, seem poised to kill the bill, Gov. Andrew Cuomo’s modest marijuana legalization effort would represent a substantive civil rights advancement. 

Cuomo’s proposal seeks to reduce the penalty for public possession of up to 25 grams — less than one ounce — of marijuana from a misdemeanor to a violation. 

The maximum penalty for a first-time offender would be set at $100. Public use of pot would, however, remain a misdemeanor and thus an arrestable offense under Cuomo’s proposal.

Private possession — possession out of the public view — of less than 25 grams of marijuana is already legal in the state of New York. Expanding this protection to public possession is important given New York City’s controversial stop and frisk policy, which allows NYPD officers to stop and search anyone they deem suspicious. Police officers in the city have been arresting people for public possession of marijuana when their stop and frisk searches turn-up any amount of pot. This is despite the fact that current law makes private possession of marijuana, such as in a pocket, backpack, or purse, a violation, not a misdemeanor, and thus not an arrestable offense.

As part of their argument for the new law, black community leaders and civil rights groups in the city point to disproportionality in the amount of young black men stopped and searched under the city’s stop and frisk policy. The New York Civil Liberties Union (NYCLU), using NYPD’s records on stops, concluded that NYPD stopped more young black men in 2011 than there are in the city. This is because the data does not allow researchers to identify people stopped more than once per year, thus people who are stopped and searched more than once per year are counted as different people for each stop.

In keeping with the NYCLU’s findings, a study done by the Drug Policy Alliance established that despite government health surveys that find young whites use marijuana at a higher rate than their black and Latino counterparts, the NYPD arrests blacks for pot possession at seven times the rate of whites and Latinos at four times the rate of whites.

By reducing the penalty for public pot possession, Cuomo’s plan lessens the burden of aggressive drug policy and over policing that is currently placed squarely on the shoulders of young blacks and Latinos. But reducing the effects of discriminatory policing practices is only one advantage of the proposed law. The statutory change would also provide relief for the City’s coffers at a time of deep austerity at the state and local levels. The practice of arresting people for public possession of small amounts of marijuana is costing the city nearly $75 million per year.

Given these realities, New York City officials have united behind Cuomo’s plan. More than a party split, the issue denotes an Upstate/Downstate split, as the city’s independent mayor and the Republican District Attorney of Staten Island both eagerly support the plan. Fears of soft on crime accusations among non-city New York state senators will, however, likely kill a policy change that would improve the future prospects of countless young black and Latino residents of New York City.