Common Sense on Pot

The illogic of New York’s marijuana laws has been evident for some time and was summed up nicely by Governor Cuomo.

If you’re caught with a small amount of pot—25 grams or less—in your backpack, the penalty is a $100 fine (for the first offense). But if a police officer asks you to empty your pockets and you pull out a small bag of weed, you are subject to arrest on a misdemeanor. Why? Because by taking the pot out of your pocket, you exposed it to “public view.”

It just doesn’t make sense, especially when you consider the police officers routinely order people to empty their pockets during stop-and-frisk operations. Mr. Cuomo’s proposal will correct this inequity by decriminalizing possession of 25 grams or less in public view. Legislators should pass this measure quickly.

Mr. Cuomo’s proposal has been portrayed as an intervention in New York City’s controversial stop-and-frisk policing strategy, which civil libertarians, editorial boards and others have sharply criticized in recent weeks. Perhaps the measure will have some effect on stop-and-frisk, but the real merit of the proposal is the effect it will have on the lives of young people, most of them black and Latino, who have been arrested on the “public view” possession charge.

Police in New York City arrested more than 50,000 people last year for possession of small amounts of pot. Over the last decade, 400,000 people have been busted on small-time possession charges. Few, if any, major cities in the nation police marijuana possession as energetically as New York.

Thousands of lives have been altered, none for the better, as a result of this misguided crackdown. Young people arrested on “public view” possession charges have had to suffer through the booking process, find money to hire a lawyer, and, if they were convicted, forever possess a rap sheet simply because they emptied their pockets as ordered by police.

New York’s spectacular success against violent offenders over the last 15 years has captured the imagination of other police agencies around the world and literally has saved the lives of thousands of New Yorkers, many of them in poor neighborhoods. But the huge number of marijuana arrests no doubt has soured what should be a strong relationship between a successful police department and communities that are now stronger and more vibrant as a result of the city’s campaign against violent offenders.

Mr. Cuomo’s proposal would go a long way toward easing tensions between the city’s minority communities and the NYPD. That, no doubt, is why Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly supports the Cuomo proposal.

The NYPD shows no signs of scaling back its stop-and-frisk operation. But if the Legislature approves Mr. Cuomo’s plan, otherwise innocent young people will no longer be subject to arrest if they pull out a small bag of pot when they empty their pockets. That would be a triumph of common sense.