New York State and the rest of the country have tried for a very long time to make marijuana go away. To say that it hasn't worked is to redefine understatement. Pot is, for all intents and purposes, mainstream. That may not be the most desirable turn of events, but it's a fact that Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo has decided to confront. It's the right move.
Acting cautiously, Cuomo has proposed to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana – no more than 25 grams, or less than an ounce – in public view. Such an offense, under his proposal, would amount to a simple violation, the same level as a parking ticket, with a maximum fine of $100. Possessing that small amount of marijuana out of public view is already just a violation. Having the drug in public view now elevates the offense to a misdemeanor, which requires the person to be booked into the criminal justice system and could result in jail. Smoking pot in public would remain a misdemeanor and sale of marijuana would also continue as a more serious offense.
Cuomo's motivation for this proposal seems oddly unfocused. He is pitching it as a response to abuses of New York City's stop-and-frisk program, in which police officers can demand that people on the street empty their pockets. If that search produces marijuana, police can then charge the unlucky victim with have the drug "in public view."
Critics of the program say racial minorities are the main target of stop-and-frisk and that its repercussions follow them for years.
In truth, there are probably more direct ways to deal with stop-and-frisk abuses, including putting an end to the practice altogether. Regardless, it should be obvious at this point that criminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana, in public view or otherwise, is in no one's interest – certainly not the possessor's, but also not those of the courts or the police or society. Too much time and too many resources are tied up in trying to discourage a practice that is plainly far beyond the law's ability to influence.
Indeed, both New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and the New York City Police Department have endorsed Cuomo's proposal. Locally, Erie County District Attorney Frank A. Sedita III praised Cuomo for his ideas on law enforcement issues, but not having seen the legislation, declined to comment.
To be sure, there are downsides to Cuomo's proposal. Some fear its reputation as a gateway drug to harder, more addictive substances. Perhaps, with penalties further relaxed, more people will drive under the influence of pot. Marijuana is not free of consequences.
But, like alcohol — and in many ways, less dangerously — marijuana has become mainstream. Evangelist Pat Robertson, who says he has never used the drug, backed legalization of marijuana earlier this year. Bill Clinton famously smoked marijuana, even if he didn't inhale (right). Clinton's 1992 acknowledgement unleashed a torrent of confessions by politicians of both parties, including former New York Gov. George E. Pataki, who admitted to mixing it with baked beans, of all things.
The list of well known-users is lengthy and includes names such as Barack Obama and Sarah Palin, and while that doesn't on its own justify further decriminalization, it does document both its ubiquitousness and its users' ability to pursue productive lives.
Whatever the downsides, on balance this is the right move. Pot's effects are not so predictably dangerous that we should be impoverishing those with small amounts of the drug and otherwise threatening their futures. Some people will abuse it, just as some abuse alcohol. We're already living with that. Let's admit it and get on with things.