N.Y. medical marijuana and "decrim fix" bills pass Assembly, but stall in Senate
Two important bills passed the New York Assembly in 2013: a bill legalizing marijuana for seriously ill patients and a bill that would fix the "public view" loophole in New York's decriminalization law. Unfortunately, the Senate adjourned June 22 without taking action on either of these important reforms.
A recent poll showed 82% support for medical marijuana statewide, but New York's medical marijuana patients continue to wait for the governor to show the leadership to allow them to have safe access to their medicine. Gov. Cuomo’s past opposition to allowing medical marijuana appears to have softened somewhat, but he still has not said he is supportive of this important reform.
Despite Cuomo's concerns, the Assembly passed A6357 June 3 in an overwhelming 99-41 vote. This medical marijuana bill was sponsored by Assembly Health Committee Chair Richard Gottfried. A companion bill, S4406, is sponsored by Sen. Diane Savino in the Senate, but did not receive a vote. Advocates have vowed to try again in 2014.
In recent years, the “public view” exception to New York’s 1977 decriminalization law has been abused by police officers. New York City police have told tens of thousands of people, mostly young people of color, to empty their pockets — thus making them criminals once their marijuana was in public view. That might finally change this year, as the Assembly voted May 29 to approve a bill that would close this loophole, but the bill (A6716) did not advance in the Senate.
Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly, and several district attorneys all called for the state’s law to be fixed last year. Unfortunately, then-Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Nassau County) stalled progress when he opposed the decrim fix in June, expressing an absurd concern that people could walk around with 10 joints in each ear.
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New York’s weak "decrim" law
New York is one of the 14 states that penalize first-offense possession of a modest amount of marijuana with a fine instead of possible jail time (marijuana possession is legal in two other states and possession in one's home is allowed under Alaska's constitution). First-offense possession of up to 25 grams of marijuana is punishable by a $100 civil citation, although first-offense possession of between 25 grams and two ounces carries a $500 fine and up to three months in jail.
As was mentioned earlier, law enforcement have been able to exploit a loophole in the decriminalization law by getting an arrestee to expose his or her marijuana as "open to public view," which converts the conduct into an arrestable offense. This has resulted in New York having the second highest per capita marijuana arrest rate in the U.S., at almost 93,000 people per year. What’s more, these arrests have been racially disproportionate — a report by the ACLU found that in 2010, blacks were 4.52 times more likely than whites to be arrested for marijuana in New York.
The Drug Policy Alliance and other allies have campaigned to fix this abuse, and in September 2011, New York City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly issued a memo to police not to arrest people for possession that is not in public view. Unfortunately, arrests have continued.
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