Cuomo shows deft hand again on pot law move

Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at Molloy College. (Feb. Gov. Andrew Cuomo speaks at Molloy College. (Feb. 2, 2012) Photo Credit: Newsday / Alejandra Villa

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Dan Janison Melville. N.Y. Tuesday January 26, 2010. Daniel Janison,

Dan Janison has been a reporter at Newsday since 1997, initially as a staff writer for the New ...

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo stepped once again into the middle of a highly emotional issue and crafted a consensus among key players -- this time on removing criminal penalties for open possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana.

Surprisingly to some, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and police Commissioner Ray Kelly embraced the proposal this week. The Democratic-controlled Assembly is ready to support the move and Sen. Mark Grisanti (R-Buffalo), part of his house's majority, emerged as a sponsor.

The city's official support is key, especially given the way its stop-and-search policies have played out -- and chafed -- in minority communities around the five boroughs.

The search policies and the pot law have been linked by an absurd but common legal exercise on New York streets. A person would be stopped and ordered by police to empty his or her pockets -- an order that, once complied with, results in open display of the weed, thus creating a police-induced misdemeanor, which then leads to an arrest.

Under the new proposal, the display would be a violation subject to fines, rather than a more serious criminal misdemeanor.

Critics have accused the NYPD of doing this to keep its search and arrest numbers up. The city administration, however, admits no inconsistency. For one thing, Kelly has previously told the City Council that if its members wanted to change the law, they needed to approach Albany. For another, Kelly has previously notified his rank-and-file that simply carrying the small amount without showing, burning or smoking it in public amounts to a violation rather than a misdemeanor.

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About-face or not, the measure, drawing attention as Albany's legislative session draws to a close, provides political cover for Bloomberg as stop-and-frisk criticism intensifies. Kelly and others praised the proposal as "balanced" in keeping public pot smoking a misdemeanor as before. Current laws against its sale would be unaffected.

And so, Cuomo managed to hold a public event with Kelly and a number of district attorneys on the same specific page as, for example, Assemb. Hakeem Jeffries (D-Brooklyn) who has declared: "The disproportionate number of blacks and Latinos stopped and frisked has increased year after year -- indicating fundamental flaws in the execution of the stop-and-frisk policy."

Also, while the city occupies the epicenter of the issue, its implications reach New York's suburbs. At the news conference on Monday, Nassau District Attorney Kathleen Rice called the proposal a "common-sense reform" that "encourages fairness and consistency."

One Albany official, who declined to be identified, said that even without facing full stop-and-frisk programs and their resulting constitutional disputes, suburban parents may be relieved that their kids won't be tagged with a criminal record in case of a foolish but minor pot transgression.

Gabriel Sayegh, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, which has been challenging the city's frisk policies, added: "Racial disparities in the rate of arrests exist across the state, wherever you look . . . We all generally agree with having a more equitable state with more equitable practices."

A bill has yet to be advanced and gain approval. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos (R-Rockville Centre) says his conference will need to review it.

But Cuomo does have opposing sides agreeing on a step forward -- which nobody seemed to bet on before it happened.

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