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Why Gov. Cuomo's Pot Decriminalization Move is a Step - But Only a Step - in the Right Direction

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NYPD officers inspect a bag inside Grand Central Terminal.
Mario Tama/Getty Images

If Gov. Andrew Cuomo gets his way, New York's racially charged and epically unpopular stop-and-frisk policy could lose a couple of teeth.

Cuomo today asked state legislators to get to work on changing the law regarding public possession of pot, which he wants downgraded from a misdemeanor to a violation in line with current New York laws concerning private possession of marijuana.

But don't get too excited. The new legislation wouldn't change the law on smoking pot in public, which would still be a misdemeanor, nor, obviously, does it open a path legalizing medical marijuana in the state, which Cuomo opposes. And it wouldn't end stop-and-frisk.

The new law, rather, is an attempt to address the racial disparities in how stop-and-frisk is applied. Tens of thousands of young, mostly black and Latino, men have been stopped by the police for unrelated reasons and, after being told to empty their pockets, found themselves charged with the crime of possessing pot. According to a report released last month by the New York Civil Liberties Union, in 70 out of 76 NYPD precincts in 2011, young black men accounted for 52.9 precent of the stops, and young Latino men 33.7 percent, despite representing a comparatively small portion of the city's population. Young white men made up only 9.3 percent of stops. Only around 10 percent of stops result in arrests or summonses, indicating that the policy is somewhat less than effective, to say the least.

The measure, Cuomo said today, is in response to these realities. "This is an issue that disproportionately affects young people — they wind up with a permanent stain on their record for something that would otherwise be a violation," he said. "The charge makes it more difficult for them to find a job. Together, we are making New York fairer and safer, and ensuring that every New Yorker has access to justice system that doesn’t discriminate based on age or color."

Donna Lieberman, the Executive Director of the NYCLU, said that the group is "delighted that the governor is championing the much-needed reform of New York's marijuana laws."

"We are hopeful that in New York, where the police have been on a marijuana crusade, this will reduce the numbers of arrests, significantly, and therefore will reduce the criminalization of young people of color significantly, because that's who gets arrested for marijuana 90 percent of the time," Lieberman said. Lieberman noted that this is just a proposal right now, and the NYCLU won't be celebrating too hard until it gets passed, and ideally when the number of stop-and-frisks is cut by 80-90 percent. But, she continued, "this change in the law will certainly eliminate an incentive for police to entrap people into committing a misdemeanor rather than a violation."

New York mayor Michael Bloomberg, who has championed stop-and-frisk, initially opposed ending misdemeanor charges for small amounts of pot, arguing that the arrests deterred more serious drug-related crimes. He has denied that the stops have anything to do with racial profiling. "We don't racial profile. We look to see where the crime is and whatever the ethnicity of that neighborhood is, that's what it is." A class action lawsuit filed against the city (and allowed by a federal judge to proceed) disagrees.

But Bloomberg and Kelly came out in support of the Cuomo's proposal today, and Bloomberg said in a statement that Cuomo's bill “strikes the right balance," the New York Times reports.

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