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Upper Manhattan Council Members Push for Marijuana Reform Bill

By DNAinfo Staff on August 18, 2011 4:20pm

City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito spoke outside City Hall Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011, to support a resolution pushing for the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana in public view.
City Councilwoman Melissa Mark-Viverito spoke outside City Hall Wednesday, Aug. 17, 2011, to support a resolution pushing for the decriminalization of small amounts of marijuana in public view.
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MANHATTAN — A group of city council members is hoping to help change a law that allows police to arrest those caught with small amounts of marijuana.

Possessing 25 grams or less of the drug is simply a violation in New York state that leads to a ticket but no criminal record — carrying a maximum $100 fine.

But if the drug is visible or in the process of being burned, it's considered a crime, and has led to tens of thousands of New Yorkers being arrested each year.

A new bill being considered by the New York State Assembly would erase that distinction — making possession of 25 grams or less of pot, whether concealed or in public view, a violation, rather than a crime.

Though the bill must ultimately be accepted at the state level, a group of city council members, including Manhattan representatives Melissa Mark-Viverito, Robert Jackson and Ydanis Rodriguez, is voicing its support for the legislation via a resolution that was proposed to the council on Wednesday, saying the current law unfairly affects people in their communities.

"These rampant marijuana arrests disproportionately target black and Latino communities and costs the city tens of millions in taxpayer dollars each year," Mark-Viverito, who introduced the resolution and represents Harlem, said in a statement Wednesday.

"In a time of scant resources, these funds could be better allocated to the pursuit of individuals that actually pose a real threat to our neighborhoods."

In addition to raising concerns about racial bias and wasted funds, critics of the current law say that it is regularly manipulated by police during "stop-and-frisks," in which officers confront and pat down people they deem "suspicious."

"[I]ndividuals are often told to empty their pockets forcing them to expose the marijuana to the public view," Rodriguez said in the statement.

The NYPD made 50,300 arrests for marijuana possession — more than for any other offense — in 2010, at a cost of approximately $75 million to taxpayers, according to a report commissioned by advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance.

A spokesman for Mayor Michael Bloomberg, whose office has overseen a drastic rise in low-level marijuana arrests, defended the current marijuana laws in an interview last year.

"Marijuana arrests can be an effective tool for suppressing the expansion of street-level drug markets and the corresponding violence,” the spokesman, Frank Barry told the New York Times last June.

"We have to stop criminalizing our youth," Mark-Viverito said in a phone call Thursday. "It creates challenges for them for the rest of their lives."