BY SAM SPOKONY | State Senator Daniel Squadron hopes to pass legislation this year that would amend marijuana laws and, according to him, cut down on the justice system’s unfair treatment of minority citizens.
Squadron’s bill, which he introduced last year, would change the statute for misdemeanor marijuana possession to make it unlawful for a person to be arrested unless the drug is either in plain sight or already being smoked.
Black New Yorkers in Manhattan and Brooklyn are nine times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites, according to a New York Civil Liberties Union report published in June.
Those statistics are closely tied to the high rate at which black men have been stopped and frisked by New York City police — although those policies may soon change under Mayor de Blasio — because officers often force people to empty their pockets during a stop-and-frisk encounter, thus revealing marijuana that had previously been kept out of sight.
“The unequal effects that this has across the city and state is unacceptable injustice, and that’s why it’s so urgent to address this with reform,” Squadron told The Villager.
The “in plain view” bill passed the state Assembly last year, but it never came up for a vote in the Senate because it was blocked by Republicans.
Squadron claimed that more than half the Senate supported the bill in the last session — including some Republicans. But he explained that some of the Republicans involved in blocking a vote on the legislation, in conversations with him, cited “politics” as a concern.
“I think that’s just a bad reason to maintain a law that has an inequitable outcome,” he said.
State Senator Brad Hoylman, one of the bill’s co-sponsors, said he firmly believes the bill would pass if it were brought to the floor of the Senate during this year’s legislative session.
“It’s an issue that’s tied to ending stop-and-frisk and making sure that people of color are treated fairly in our justice system,” said Hoylman. “And all of these things have come to a focal point over the past year, so it’s not surprising that the public supports this, and support over all is gaining ground.”
In his State of the State Address on Jan. 8, Governor Cuomo announced plans to loosen restrictions on medical marijuana use — a move cheered by Democrats across the state — but did not say he would take any action on amending marijuana possession laws.
“Governor Cuomo’s proposal is a step forward, and I applaud him for that. But it’s also critical that we reform these possession laws,” said Squadron, who in a statement released immediately after the State of the State, urged the governor to do just that.
In 2013, arrests for misdemeanor marijuana possession dropped by around 40 percent in the Downtown Manhattan area compared to 2012, according to police statistics. But there were still more than 650 arrests made last year, or nearly two per day.