Naturally Occurring Marijuana Plants

Governor Andrew Cuomo of New York announced yesterday that he will ask the State Legislature to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in plain view.  The action comes in response to the large number of criminal prosecutions of African American and Latinos for possession of marijuana open to public view arising from New York City’s aggressive “stop-and-frisk” policy.  Under the Constitution as construed by the Supreme Court, the police are entitled to pat down or frisk a person if the police officer reasonably believes that the person is committing, has committed or is about to commit a crime and the police officer reasonably believes that he or she is in danger of physical injury by virtue of the accused being armed.  Terry v. Ohio, 392 U.S. 1 (1968). 

In practice, the police don’t have a reasonable belief that their target is involved in crime, they pat down their target and feel a cell phone, and then ask the target to empty his or her pockets and go so far as to demand that the person take off his or her shoes.  When a small amount of marijuana is revealed, the target is charged with possession of marijuana in a public place a misdemeanor punishable by six months in jail, instead of the violation punishable by a $100 fine.  The violation is like a traffic ticket and is not a crime.

The practice has led to the stigmatization of a broad swath of the young, minority community making it difficult for the convicted to obtain work.  It also has led to a form of racial profiling.  According to The New York Times, from 2002 through 2011, New York City had 400,000 low-level marijuana arrests, more than the three mayoral administrations prior to Mayor Bloomberg, spanning 24 years, combined.  Last year, New York City arrested over 50,000 people for possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The policy has also caused deteriorating relationships between the police and the minority community.  While Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly issued a directive in September that police officers were not to arrest people who take small amounts of marijuana out of their pockets after being stopped, according to The Times, this resulted only in a modest decline in the number of arrests. 

After Governor Cuomo announced his proposal, both Police Commissioner Kelly and Mayor Bloomberg announced their support for it. 

Under Governor Cuomo’s proposal, it would still be a misdemeanor to smoke marijuana in public. 

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