Andrew Cuomo, Governor of New York State, has recently detailed his interest in reducing the penalty for public possession of small amounts of marijuana. This is a strong stance by one of the most influential politicians in New York and has the potential to help many individuals throughout the state who have been charged with possession of marijuana.
The proposal could not have come at a better time for the governor when his New York City Police Department has been under extreme scrutiny for its controversial stop-and-frisk policy. Although it may seem that a call for decriminalization would simply rebalance the injustice that the search policy has produced, it is a step in the right direction that will bring with it many positive outcomes in the future and may spur other states to follow suit.
Specifically, the bill will reduce a possession charge from a criminal misdemeanor to a violation. The rationale behind this is geared towards protecting individual rights, while also ensuring that certain individuals who are frisked will not be unjustly charged with a crime that would not have been the case without the search.
For a little background on this statement, you need to understand that “private” possession of marijuana is considered a violation in New York, whereas “public” possession is a misdemeanor. If an officer frisks you and demands that you open your pockets, and you have marijuana in them, the scenario immediately changes from private possession to public, simply by having the substance in view. Without explicit suspicion of drug use, this procedure creates a slippery slope of potential rights abuse that unjustly affects many individuals. It commonly forces them into a position that ensures increased charges, even though they may not have had any intent whatsoever to possess the marijuana in “public.”
This deceptive practice is a tactic that many officers have been using since the stop-and-frisk policy went into effect, and Gov. Cuomo seems to have realized that it will develop into a major issue if the root of the cause is not dealt with. Even though some of this decriminalization may be, in part, a response to an overly aggressive law enforcement technique, the precedent it sets is good for individuals and society in general.
Not only will the decriminalization keep New York jails from overcrowding on a daily basis, it will also allow for the police department to divert their attention to more serious crimes that have a defined negative effect on society. It will also benefit the disproportionate nature of drug arrests, which have consistently shown Hispanics and blacks being unfairly targeted. The stop-and-frisk policy has drawn a deep racial line in the sand, with minorities carrying the brunt of the added invasiveness. This decriminalization will help remedy this inherent injustice, although the search policy itself needs to be revised as well.
Gov. Cuomo should be applauded for his new stance. Marijuana users have no place among actual criminals. Exposing them to that environment puts them at a high risk of assimilating criminal behavior, causing the recidivism that has become rampant in a corrections system that irrationally focuses all of its resources on punishing the inmates rather than rehabilitating them.
Jailing marijuana users only makes our society more fragile by creating an environment of fear, stress and animosity between law enforcement and the rest of society. A decriminalization will help remedy these issues and brings us closer to a truly efficient justice system, something that the forefathers of our country have wanted all along.