The proposed legislation would downgrade the so-called public possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana from a misdemeanor to a violation, the equivalent of a traffic ticket, punishable by a maximum $100 fine.
Cuomo's proposal was done partly in response to outcry against the NYPD's controversial stop-and-frisk policy. During stops, police have been accused of asking people to empty their pockets. If a person complies and produces a small amount of marijuana for personal use, that person may wind up getting arrested, because once the marijuana is out in the open it's in the public space, and a misdemeanor.
The new law would align the penalty with the one now on the books for marijuana found by cops inside a person's pocket, car or backpack, which is not in public view.
“There is a blatant inconsistency. If you possess marijuana privately, it's a violation. If you show it in public, it's a crime,” Cuomo told reporters at a press conference in Albany, where he was joined by Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and Manhattan District Attorney Cy Vance.
“During the stop-and-frisk, the police officer says, ‘Turn your pockets.’ The marijuana is now in public view. It just went from a violation to a crime,” he explained.
More than 50,000 people were arrested for possessing small amounts of pot last year, up from just 2,000 back in 1990.
Bloomberg said Cuomo's proposal "strikes the right balance by ensuring that the NYPD will continue to have the tools it needs to maintain public safety — including making arrests for selling or smoking marijuana."
He added that Cuomo's plan mirrors a directive issued last year by Kelly for officers to begin issuing violations instead of misdemeanors for small amounts of marijuana that come to view during police searches.
“I think it’s a balanced approach,” he said of the change, which would not affect the sale or the smoking of marijuana, which would remain crimes.
Kelly issued a statement saying that the legislation would make application of the marijuana law "much clearer."
"It supports our quality of life efforts in that smoking it in public or burning it is still a misdemeanor, still a crime," Kelly said. "Mayor Bloomberg totally supports this legislation. He hopes that it passes in this session, as do I."
City Council Speaker Christine Quinn also backed the change, but stressed the need for “broad based reforms” to stop-and-frisk procedures, training and oversight.
“These changes must occur as soon as possible to reduce the unacceptable number of stops and heal the divide between the NYPD and the communities they serve,” she said.