Back in the beginning of June, Gov. Andrew Cuomo, Mayor Michael Bloomberg, New York City Police Commissioner Ray Kelly and all five New York City District Attorneys came together in support of legislation that would have reduced drug possession arrests by 50,000 in New York City alone.
By making 25 grams or less of marijuana in public view a violation rather than a punishable misdemeanor, the police department would have been discouraged from using intimidation tactics that disproportionately affect minority men.
But the Republican-controlled Senate blocked its passage, so the counterproductive arrests will continue at an estimated cost of $75 million annually, or approximately $1,500 per arrest.
So much for fiscal responsibility — or political astuteness, for that matter. Public opinion throughout the state was largely in favor of reformed stop-and-frisk policies. No one better indicates this than Governor Cuomo himself, who has plenty to protect as a potential nominee in the 2016 presidential election.
While these results are disappointing, there is still hope of a victory in the near future. With the collective consciousness raised, a new precedent has been set for harm reduction across the country. As many activists in the progressive movement have exclaimed, “Pot is the new gay.” Public opinion on both issues has been relatively constant, hovering at around 50 percent, boding well for national acceptance and a political shift to the mainstream.
The ongoing debate has focused primarily on civil rights, and rightly so. Federal government data has indicated the demographic that most frequently uses marijuana is white men ages 18 to 29; yet black and latino men of the same age account for the overwhelming majority of stop-and-frisk encounters leading to arrest.
In total, 85 percent of all stop-and-frisk arrests are charged to blacks and latinos. At the moment, a first-time offense for public view can lead to a permanent police record.
To paraphrase Executive Director Howard Josepher of the Harm Reduction Coalition, the “gateway effect” of a first-time minority criminal record has enormous implications on housing, student aid and employment prospects. These are institutions meant to create opportunity, but instead current state and federal drug laws have resulted in increasing recidivism and collateral damage.
There is one aspect of this legislation that raised concern. Public view is substantially different from private use, yet this 25-gram limit is indiscriminately applied in almost every case involving low-level marijuana possession. The law would effectively create immunity for “responsible” drug dealers, who could make a transaction without ever putting themselves at risk during the delivery.
But this glitch would have been a small price to pay in an otherwise necessary measure. And while the legislation was primarily concerned with urban areas, it would have equally affected all New Yorkers and young people with a future to protect (presumably college students as well.) In other words, this would have directly and immediately impacted the Binghamton community on and off-campus.
In order to truly achieve equality, we must acknowledge civil rights in the context of civil liberties. Our fourth amendment protection against unwarranted searches and seizures is quintessentially American. Anyone and everyone who believes in constitutional merit and the spirit of the law should continue to rally behind a race-neutral victory in the name of social justice.