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‘Liberate Park: Legalize It!’

Other community boards are concerned about getting stonewalled. At Community Board 2, they’re worried about getting stoned.

So, to free their park from the grip of local pot-peddlers hawking nickel bags in Washington Square Park with less discretion than the hot-dog vendors, board members are pushing for a rather extreme solution to the problem: nation-wide decriminalization of marijuana.

“I don’t know why there’s drug dealing [in the park], but marijuana is a problem,” said Aubrey Lees, the chair of Board 2’s parks committee, speaking to The Observer . “Let’s just decriminalize it and maybe it will get out of the park. Let’s just move the issue along.” So at the board’s April 22 public meeting-five short days before an entrepreneurial young N.Y.U. coed was arrested for allegedly peddling a cocktail of mood-alterers all over Board 2’s turf-the parks committee presented its marijuana resolution to the full board for a vote.

The resolution resolved that “CB-2 Manhattan respectfully requests that the State of New York/United States Government decriminalize marijuana immediately so we can have our park back.”

Not all board members were down with the plan, however.

“I smoked weed-and I inhaled,” board member Rick Panson told The Observer . “But I am adamantly opposed to [decriminalizing it]. I think that because we’re having a problem policing Washington Square Park doesn’t mean that we should surrender and make that one park the drug den of the city.”

Following a brief discussion, the board voted to send the resolution to the social-services committee for further review.

If a New York City guidebook were to list Manhattan’s most popular locale for scoring drugs, Washington Square Park-its pathways echoing with the hushed street cry: “Sinse! Sinse! Sinse!”-would undoubtedly win the honor. “There isn’t any enforcement there,” said Mr. Panson. “And the reputation is out that there isn’t any enforcement.”

Over at the Sixth Precinct, Deputy Inspector Kevin Fitzgerald sees the situation a little differently.

“I don’t think [marijuana dealing] is that big of a problem [in the park], because my officers have been doing a tremendous job,” he said. “It’s not hard to arrest them-we’ll keep arresting them.” According to Inspector Fitzgerald, the drug-dealing problem in the park has abated in recent years due to a combination of improved technology-the Police Department installed new cameras 16 months ago-and a heavy police presence.

As for nationwide decriminalization, Mr. Fitzgerald didn’t think that would be happening any time soon-at least not at Board 2’s request.

“As long as it’s against the law, we’re going to enforce it,” he said.

But the word on the street says that enforcement is not so simple.

“If you arrest three guys in the park, the rest leave. They go sell it on Eighth Street or Bleecker Street,” said Officer Peter Caddle, wearing a bulletproof vest and standing in the police van that has been stationed on the north side of the park for the past several years. “You’ve got to change the laws. The laws are the problem,” he added.

But unlike Board 2, Officer Caddle would like to see marijuana laws tightened. “I think decriminalizing it will just add a new problem,” he said.

Some park regulars see little problem at all. “There’s really nothing happening out here-just some people selling nickel bags,” said a chess player who identified himself only as Thor.

Many board members argue for a stronger involvement from the university, whose campus surrounds the park. “I don’t think the university is going to support the decriminalization of marijuana,” said Michael Haberman, N.Y.U.’s director of community relations, though he agrees with Board 2 that “there are still certainly some problems in the park.”

“We work closely with the Police Department,” he said. “I think what’s clear is that Washington Square Park is in need of a serious renovation, a serious structural renovation.”

With the resolution stalled in committee, Ms. Lees is plotting her next move. “It’s amazing that it’s still going on; other parks don’t have this type of problem,” she said. “This was our attempt [to resolve it]. It wasn’t the best way, but it was something that we were trying to be practical about.”

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