City & State: State Legislators Call for Fairness in Marijuana Arrests

City & State

State Legislators Call for Fairness in Marijuana Arrests

The Fairness and Equity Act aims to address racial disparities in low-level marijuana arrests throughout the state.

By Mylique Sutton
Jul 09, 2014

The loosening of marijuana laws in New York continues to be the talk of the town this week. Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed the Compassionate Care Act on Monday, establishing a tightly regulated statewide medical marijuana program. Then on Tuesday, Brooklyn District Attorney Kenneth Thompson announced that his office would, in most cases, refrain from prosecuting first-time, non-violent offenders for possession of less than 25 grams on marijuana on their person.

On the heels of these developments, over a dozen elected officials, along with representatives of a few community groups, gathered on the steps of City Hall Wednesday to introduce the Fairness and Equity Act, a bill that seeks to address racial disparities in arrests by reducing the penalty for possession of marijuana from a misdemeanor offense to a violation that would carry a fine.

The law will also give New Yorkers who have previously been convicted of possession the opportunity to clear their record and more precisely define what is considered a marijuana sale.

Members of the organization Voices of Community Activists and Leaders (VOCAL-NY), which is dedicated to tackling matters of contention related to the “drug war”, HIV/AIDS and mass incarceration, helped set the tone for the press conference with a series of impassioned chants, including “We’re tired. We’re pissed. Weed arrests must not persist.”

Assemblyman Karim Camara, who is sponsoring the Fairness and Equity Act, stressed that the bill is not a means to legalize marijuana or condone its recreational use, but that it will help ensure that young individuals will not be targeted as a result of their race or the neighborhood from which they hail. According to a study conducted by a Queens College sociologist, blacks and Hispanics made up 86 percent of the individuals arrested in the first quarter of 2014 in New York City for marijuana possession, despite the fact that whites make up a much larger proportional percentage of marijuana users.

“In reality we’re making our streets less safe with these policies because these young people—we arrest them and then we give them, potentially, a criminal record,” said Camara, who is also chair of the State Legislature’s Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, Asian Caucus. “They’re arrested; they’re given misdemeanors, and guess what? We’re decreasing the chance of them gaining employment. We’re decreasing the chance of them getting an education, getting a student loan to go to college. So in essence we’re telling them, ‘We’re going to push you out on the street. We don’t want you to be a part of society.’”

State Sen. Daniel Squadron, who is sponsoring the measure in the Senate, said that the situation as it stands is unnacceptable.

“It’s a basic issue of fairness,” Squadron said. “You shouldn’t be able to predict who will be charged with a crime based on the color of their skin. That is something that this state, this city and this country turned against a long time ago and should not have anywhere.”

New York City is on track to match the total amount of marijuana arrests made last year and Brooklyn Borough President Eric Adams attributed the high arrest numbers to the NYPD’s use of stop-and-frisk, arguing that private possession of marijuana becomes public possessions when individuals are forced to empty their pockets.

“[Bill] Clinton smoked a joint, he became president. [Barack] Obama smoked a joint, he [became] president. Our children smoke a joint, they end up in the joint,” Adams said, the sound bites rolling off his tongue as fast as the beads of sweat trickling down his forehead.

With elections looming this fall, state Senate Democrats are hoping to make Republicans feel the heat, as they gun for a majority to make enacting policies such as the Fairness and Equity Act as likely as possible. Squadron, however, was quick to point out that he has seen support from both sides of the aisle on this issue and expressed the hope there will be no hindrance to passing and enacting the bill.

“I think that one thing that we’ve seen in this session is that because we are controlled today by a majority that doesn’t believe in allowing an up or down vote on basic issues of equity, fairness and civil rights, we really don’t know today what the vote count is,” Squadron said. “What we do know is that Republicans, Democrats and people who affiliate with the Independent Democratic Conference have all, repeatedly, stood up for this need.”

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