Council Members Call for Change to Marijuana Possession Law

Criticizing the Bloomberg administration’s aggressive pursuit of marijuana possession arrests as “racially biased” and costly, a group of City Council members gathered in front of City Hall on Wednesday to introduce a resolution aimed at curbing the practice. In New York, carrying a small, concealed amount of marijuana — less than 25 grams, or seven-eighths of an ounce — is a violation, punishable by a $100 fine. But under current state law, the violation becomes a criminal offense when the drug is brought into the open, even when this happens only after the police ask people they stop to empty their pockets or purses. The Council resolution, co-sponsored by Melissa Mark-Viverito and G. Oliver Koppell, expresses support for an effort among some state lawmakers to close that legal loophole by reclassifying the public display of small amounts of marijuana as a violation.

Since 2002, more than 350,000 people have been arrested in New York City for having small amounts of marijuana. The Bloomberg administration has defended the policy, saying that marijuana arrests are an important tool in fighting drug markets and violence, and that changing the law would encourage public smoking. A spokesman said the Bloomberg administration had no comment on the resolution. Nearly 90 percent of those arrested in the city on charges of personal possession of marijuana are black or Latino, a fact that was repeatedly mentioned at Wednesday’s news conference. Ms. Mark-Viverito noted that just two weeks ago, the Bloomberg administration announced a $130 million effort to overhaul services for young black and Latino men. “We will not allow our young people to be criminalized anymore,” she said.

Hakeem Jeffries, a Brooklyn assemblyman who is among those in the State Legislature trying to change the law, decried the “significant racial disparity” in the arrests. “It’s unjust, it’s undemocratic, it’s unreasonable and it’s unconscionable,” he said. Councilman Jumaane Williams said it was “stupid” and wasteful to arrest people for low-level marijuana possession, saying that the city spends $75 million a year and loses hundreds of hours of manpower on marijuana arrests. “What I would like the mayor to do is just be honest: Tell young black and Latino youngsters that they are not equal citizens in New York City,” he said. “It is more dangerous to have them believe that they are.”

Alfredo Carrasquillo, who lives in the South Bronx, said he had been arrested multiple times for marijuana possession. “The usual process is police will run up on me, come up with an excuse on why they arrested me — or sometimes they don’t even have an excuse — demand that I get up against a wall,” he said. Then, he said, officers start patting him down, handcuffing him when they find a small bag of marijuana.

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