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Cuomo proposes loosening pot laws; The goal is to reduce stop-and-frisk arrests

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo, a Democrat walking the tightrope between liberal and conservative causes, Monday proposed to decriminalize possession of smaller amounts of marijuana.

The proposal is meant to deal with years of criticism of "stop-and-frisk" practices by the New York City Police Department that have led to arrests of thousands of people on marijuana possession charges. The new provisions would apply statewide.

The plan would make it a simple violation -- like a parking ticket -- to have 25 grams or less of marijuana in public view; the maximum fine for possession of the smaller amounts would be $100. Smoking marijuana in public would still carry a misdemeanor charge.

Cuomo said the new plan would create "fairness and consistency" in how the state's marijuana laws are enforced.

The proposal piggybacks on legislation introduced last year by Sen. Mark Grisanti, a Buffalo Republican, who wanted smoking or possessing small amounts of marijuana in public to be treated as a violation instead of a misdemeanor, which requires people to be fingerprinted and booked into the criminal-justice system.

But Grisanti, who called the state's 1977 marijuana laws "outdated," abandoned the push last year when it became clear, he said, that the GOP-led Senate would not go along with weakening drug laws. Sources said Grisanti was to have appeared with Cuomo at Monday's gathering, but no Senate Republican representatives were at the event.

Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos, a Long Island Republican, said the GOP would discuss the Cuomo proposal.

Proponents maintain the measure will end stop-and-frisk abuses that they say have targeted mostly urban minorities. They say the current law allows police to have people on the streets empty their pockets; if smaller amounts of marijuana are found, they then can be charged with having the drug "in public view" instead of the lesser level of violation for having the same amount of marijuana outside of public view in their pockets.

Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat, said police in Buffalo do not "intentionally stop young men of African-American or Latino descent just to frisk them, like they have in New York City."

Still, the lawmaker said, the proposal would keep the issue from becoming a problem for police and prosecutors in Buffalo. "Any time you can offer an opportunity not to criminalize young people is a good thing," Peoples-Stokes said. She said some young people charged with small amounts of marijuana get into the criminal-justice system, which can be hard to escape.

"It's different if they are visible smoking on a street corner. But we all know how much this stuff is used in our communities," she said.

But Mike Long, the chairman of the state Conservative Party, called it a "wrong-headed idea" that sends a bad message to teenagers. "Anyone [who] doesn't think that marijuana is the gateway for opening the door to other drugs is very foolish," he said. He said teenagers will see Cuomo's message as a "green light, which means it's OK to do it."

In a memo supporting his still-pending bill, Grisanti said state statistics show that 54,813 people have been arrested for marijuana possession in public view; all but about 5,000 of those arrests were in New York City.

The memo states that one in seven arrests in New York City is for marijuana possession. It states than 90 percent of people stopped by the NYPD in 2009 were minorities.

The Cuomo plan would make possession of just under an ounce of marijuana a violation.

Cuomo said 94 percent of marijuana convictions last year involved blacks and Latinos. "Those numbers are startling," he said.

The measure was backed by prosecutors from New York City and the city's police commissioner, Raymond Kelly.

Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III said Monday night that while he considers Cuomo to be "pretty sharp when it comes to law enforcement issues, I am really not in a position to comment on his marijuana proposal until I read the legislation."

News Staff Reporter Matt Gryta contributed to this report.