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Bloomberg supports proposal to lower penalty for possession of marijuana

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and Governor Andrew Cuomo are shown in this file photo. (June 1, 2012) Credit: AP

New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg says he supports Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposal to lower the penalty for public possession of a small amount of marijuana, reducing it from a misdemeanor to a violation.

Possession of less than 25 grams was reduced to a violation in 1977, subject to a ticket and fine. If the pot is burning or in public view, it rises to a misdemeanor that leads to arrest.

Bloomberg said Monday that Cuomo's proposal mirrors a directive issued to NYPD officers. He says that strikes the right balance and allows police to combat the routine sale and use of marijuana on the streets.

 On Monday, Gov. Cuomo proposed lowering the penalty for public possession of a small amount of marijuana, reducing it from a misdemeanor to a violation with a fine up to $100.

New York City prosecutors and Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly, whose offices handled about 50,000 such criminal cases last year, endorsed the Democratic governor's plan. Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said it will help them redirect limited resources to serious crime, and key Assembly Democrats expressed support. Some opposition is expected in the state Senate's Republican majority, where a spokesman said they will review the measure once Cuomo submits it.

Possession of less than 25 grams was reduced in state law to a violation in 1977, subject to a ticket and fine. If the pot is burning or in public view, it rises to a misdemeanor that leads to an arrest. Cuomo's proposal differs from pending Assembly and Senate bills, which leave public pot smoking as a criminal misdemeanor.

"There's a blatant inconsistency. If you possess marijuana privately, it's a violation. If you show it in public, it's a crime," Cuomo said. "It's incongruous. It's inconsistent the way it's been enforced. There have been additional complications in relation to the stop-and-frisk policy where there's claims young people could have a small amount of marijuana in their pocket, where they're stopped and frisked. The police officer says, 'Turn out your pockets.' The marijuana is now in public view. It just went from a violation to a crime."

Cuomo acknowledged the existing approach disproportionately affects minority youths, with 94 percent of arrests in New York City, more than half of those arrested younger than 25 and 82 percent either black or Hispanic. He also defended keeping smoking a crime. "I believe the society does want to discourage the use of marijuana in public, on the street. Smoking a joint, I think, is a different level of activity than just being in possession of it," he said.

Kelly said he faced criticism from the City Council last year about too many arrests for small amounts of marijuana. He responded that they need to change the law because officers can't simply turn a blind eye to it.

In response to allegations that police were arresting people for marijuana that was in their pockets until police made them reveal it, Kelly issued a directive last year reminding officers how the law should correctly be applied. "This law will make certain that the confusion in this situation will be eliminated, and it also mandates that a violation will be charged irrespective as the district attorney said the marijuana is in plain sight or not."

Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, a Brooklyn Democrat and sponsor of the Assembly bill similar to Cuomo's proposal, said the racially disparate arrest numbers are a consequence of both the statute and the police stop-and-frisk policies. "The unlawful arrests have declined but not at the level that many had hoped would take place," he said.

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