ALBANY, N.Y. – New York's Senate majority leader said Wednesday that Gov. Andrew Cuomo's proposal to reduce the state penalty for public possession of a small amount of marijuana won't pass his chamber.
Sen. Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, said it's wrong to downgrade punishment to a simple violation for having up to 25 grams of marijuana in the open. However, he said the Senate would work on a narrower measure ensuring that the lesser penalty applies when police order someone with a joint in his pocket to bring it out in the open.
"Being able to just walk around with 10 joints in each ear and only being a violation I think that's wrong," Skelos told reporters. "If the question is emptying out your pockets and that becoming a misdemeanor, then I think we can work on it."
Concealed possession of small amounts of marijuana is a violation, subject to a ticket and $100 fine, while smoking or public possession rises to a misdemeanor. Critics say New York City police have used the marijuana law in connection with their stop-and-frisk policies to disproportionately arrest minority youths, who accounted for about 80 percent of the nearly 50,000 people they charged with the misdemeanor last year.
The Democratic governor on Monday proposed cutting the penalty for public possession from a criminal misdemeanor to a violation, saying it would save thousands of New Yorkers, mostly black and Hispanic youths, from unnecessary arrests and criminal charges. He said the difference between the two penalties is "incongruous." He proposed leaving public pot smoking as a criminal misdemeanor.
City Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly and district attorneys from the five boroughs endorsed Cuomo's proposal.
In response to allegations that police were arresting people for marijuana that was in their pockets until officers made them reveal it, Kelly issued a directive last year reminding officers how existing law should correctly be applied. He said the proposed legislative change would eliminate any confusion and people holding small amounts of marijuana would be charged with a violation either way.
"Carrying 10 joints in each ear would require some set of ears," Cuomo spokesman Josh Vlasto said Wednesday. "We look forward to working these issues through with the Senate in order to end an injustice that has been allowed to go on for too long."