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Supporters urge Senate vote on marijuana decriminalization

Members of the legislature’s Black and Hispanic Caucus and their allies made a last minute push for a bill to decriminalize the public possession of small amounts of marijuana, saying current laws unfairly target young black and Latino men.

Assemblyman Karim Camara, who chairs the caucus, says the bill to decriminalize public possession of small amounts of marijuana is needed partly to fix an ongoing problem with the New York City Police Department’s Stop and Frisk policy. He and other supporters gathered outside the Senate chamber to call for a vote.  

Camara says young black and Hispanic men are disproportionately targeted by police, and when asked to empty their pockets, they sometimes have small amounts of marijuana in them. In New York, private possession of small amounts of marijuana is already decriminalized, and violators are subject to just a fine.  But, under Stop and Frisk, when someone who is questioned has to take the drug out of their pocket, it becomes public possession of marijuana and the person is charged with a misdemeanor, and sometimes the person ends up with a permanent record.

“It’s bad for them and  it’s bad for the community,” said Camara, who said it makes it harder for the young men to get jobs and education. “And basically push them on the fringes of society,” he said.  

Shapriece Townsend says he ended up facing charges after police stopped and searched him when he was returning home after a visit to his grandmother.

“I spent three days in jail,” Townsend said. “I’ve got two kids on the way, and I don’t want that to happen to them.”

Supporters say it’s not just in New York City that young blacks and Hispanics are more likely to be charged with marijuana possession. They say it’s also true upstate.  

The sponsor of the bill in the Senate, Dan Squadron, is white. “My son may carry marijuana one day. He will never get a criminal record for doing it,” Squadron said. “Karim’s son may carry marijuana one day, and he’s nine to ten times more likely to get a criminal record for doing it.”  

Squadron says there are the 32 yes votes in the Senate needed to pass the measure, but he says the bill has been “bottled up” because some Senate Republicans, who lead the chamber in a power sharing agreement, are against  further marijuana decriminalization.

Squadron says there are not 32 members, though, who are willing to buck the current Senate leadership and vote to actually put the bill on the floor for a vote.

In order for that to happen, some members of the Independent Democratic Conference, which co-leads the Senate, would have to go against the wishes of their GOP governing partners. Squadron says so far, that has not happened.

“We are urging the 32 folks who are supportive of this issue to stand together to bring it to the floor regardless of what the leaders say,” Squadron said.

Gov. Andrew Cuomo first made the decriminalization of public possession of small amounts of pot a top priority at the end of the 2012 session. He did not convince the Senate to act, and, and though he listed it as a goal in 2013,  has not mentioned the issue in recent weeks.  Sen. Ruth Hassell-Thompson says the governor could be doing more.

“He has demonstrated in the past that anything he has wanted, he has made it happen,” said Hassell- Thompson. “So if he wants it, make it happen”, she said, to applause.

Supporters say if the legislative session is really going to end on Thursday June 20, then a bill needs to be introduced by Monday night.


Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.