Pols: Drop Penalties for Small Pot Crimes

Loophole Led To Spotty Enforcement

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver joined with co-sponsor Assemblyman Karim Camara, chair of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Legislative Caucus, to announce the passage of legislation that would reduce the penalty for possession of a relatively small amount of marijuana in public view from a class B misdemeanor to a violation.

The bill would ensure that all those who are charged with possession of 15 grams of marijuana or less are penalized in an impartial and consistent manner (A.6716-A).

The legislation would ensure that penalties for the public possession of 15 grams of marijuana or less are equivalent to private possession of the same amount. Consistent with existing law for private possession, a first offense would be punishable by a fine of up to $100. The measure increases fines and other penalties if the person has been convicted of one or more marijuana or controlled substance offenses within the last three years.

Penalties would remain the same for smoking or burning marijuana in public; which would continue to be punishable as a class B misdemeanor.

“Applying a misdemeanor charge for possession of a relatively small amount of marijuana according to the current law diverts law enforcement efforts and millions of dollars in taxpayer money away from serious crimes,” Silver said. “The law also unfairly targets young people, especially Black and Hispanic youth. This misdemeanor-level conviction can be a permanent stain on the future of these young men and women, impeding career and educational opportunities and essentially placing this vulnerable group of people at the fringes of society. Our youth should be able to learn from their mistakes, rather than fail because of them. The passage of today’s legislation is a positive step forward in ensuring that reasonable, fair penalties apply to those charged with smaller-quantity marijuana possession.”

Current law makes possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana possessed in a “public place” and “open to public view” a class B misdemeanor, punishable by up to three months imprisonment. However, the non-public possession of the same amount is punishable only by a fine.

This small distinction between public and non-public possession has facilitated a floodgate of arrests and charges, Silver noted. In some jurisdictions, police officers request or demand that individuals encountered on the street empty their pockets or purse; this action by law enforcement sometimes forces exposure of smallquantities of marijuana into “public view,” thereby resulting in arrest and heightened criminal penalties.

“For too long, a loophole in the 1977 marijuana possession law allowed for the law to be applied differently to different groups of people based solely on race, age and geography,” Camara stated. “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, and I’m proud of my colleagues in the Assembly for passing this important bill. Now it’s time for our colleagues in the Senate to act, so we can deliver this bill to Gov. [Andrew] Cuomo for his signature.”

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