N.Y. Governor Cuomo Proposes Marijuana Decriminalization

New York's Governor is proposing a change in the law that could spare thousands of people a year from an unnecessary trip through the legal system.

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo is proposing a change in the law that would effectively decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana in public:

Wading into the debate over stop-and-frisk police tactics, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo plans to ask legislators on Monday for a change in New York State law that would drastically reduce the number of people who could be arrested for marijuana possession as a result of police stops.

The governor will call for the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana in public view, administration officials said. Advocates of such a change say the offense has ensnared tens of thousands of young black and Latino men who are stopped by the New York City police for other reasons but after being instructed to empty their pockets, find themselves charged with a crime.

Reducing the impact of the Bloomberg administration’s stop-and-frisk policy has been a top priority of lawmakers from minority neighborhoods, who have urged Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, to pay more attention to the needs of their communities. The lawmakers argue that young men found with small amounts of marijuana are being needlessly funneled into the criminal justice system and have difficulty finding jobs as a result.

By deciding to get involved in the biggest law enforcement issue roiling New York City, Mr. Cuomo is again inserting himself into the affairs of the city in a way that has been welcomed by some and resented by others. He previously brokered the resolution of a dispute over legalizing street hails of livery cabs, and he ordered the city to stop requiring that food stamp applicants be fingerprinted.

In this case, the governor would be acting against the wishes of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, and in spite of a September directive from the police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, who instructed officers not to arrest people who take small amounts of marijuana out of their pockets or bags after being stopped by the police.

The Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group critical of the Police Department’s marijuana arrest policies, found that only a modest decline in the arrests followed Mr. Kelly’s memorandum.

Though the governor’s legislation does not address the high number of stops by the police, it would take aim at what many black and Hispanic lawmakers as well as advocacy groups say has been one of the most damaging results of the aggressive police tactics: arrest records for young people who have small amounts of marijuana in their pockets.

“For individuals who have any kind of a record, even a minuscule one, the obstacles are enormous to employment and to education,” said Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “When it’s really a huge number of kids in the community who go through this, and all have the same story, the impact is just devastating.”

The police in New York City made 50,684 arrests last year for possession of a small amount of marijuana, more than for any other offense, according to an analysis of state data by Harry G. Levine, a sociologist at Queens College.  The arrests continued — one in seven arrests made in the city was for low-level marijuana possession — even as Commissioner Kelly issued his directive.

Under New York law, possession of small amounts of marijuana is a ticketable offense with a fine of no more than $100 for a first offense, but if the marijuana is in public view, or is being smoked in public, it becomes a misdemeanor. This is the part of  New York law that Cuomo is seeking to address. It’s a sensible reform, actually. Several states, including Connecticut and California, have already gone down this route and there has been no indication that it has resulted in any increase in drug use or criminal behavior. And, of course, it’s worth noting that the disproportionate number of the people arrested under this law have been young black and Hispanic men, putting a Class B Misdemeanor on their record simply because a police officer claimed that they “displayed” marijuana in public.

It’s also worth noting that a vast number of these “stop and frisk” searches that result in the discovery of marijuana were illegal to begin with because there was no reasonable basis for the officer to stop the person in question. Typically, at some point in this encounter, the officer will ask the person stopped to empty their pockets, and if there happens to be a small bag of marijuana in there, the minute they take the bag out of their pocket, they have committed the offense of “displaying” the marijuana in public. Good luck trying to argue that the stop was illegal in Court, by the way, because the Judge is going to be unlikely to buy it and your public defender is going to be telling you to “take a deal” rather than fight the case. Even if that deal doesn’t result in jail time, it does result in a criminal record, and that’s a big problem for a guy already hobbled by poverty and a poor education. As Tim Lynch puts it, first the lousy government schools give you a bad education, then a cop busts you and gives you a criminal record when you didn’t really do anything wrong. Cuomo’s reform won’t stop all of these “stop and frisk” arrests but they’ll put a big dent in them, and that’s a good thing.

How big a deal could this be? Harry Levine, a professor at Queens College says there were 400,000 arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana between 2002 and 2011. That’s 400,000 lives potentially messed up. It’s time to end that nonsense.

As a matter of science, there’s little logic for treating marijuana the same way we treat harder drugs like cocaine and heroin. It’s impact on the body isn’t all that dissimilar to alcohol, and there’s no credible evidence that it leads to criminal behavior on the part of the user. Slowly, the United States has been moving toward legalization, and this is yet another welcome step on that road.

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, Policing, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. Jeremy says:

    I have to admit, I rather like Cuomo. I won’t argue that he’s perfect, but he’s actually pretty decent from what I’ve seen. If he ran for the White House in 2016 and all the other candidates were supremely lousy, I might actually vote for him.

  2. Tsar Nicholas says:

    Full legalization of pot would be much better, but indeed this is a step in the correct direction. P.S.- Good blog post.

  3. Rob in CT says:

    It’s funny that I totally missed that CT had decriminalized fairly small amounts of pot some time ago. Then I forgot about it again.

    I was reminded of it this weekend when I decided to turn on the radio and encountered the local “Conservative” opinion program. The host spent some time mocking medical marijuana and being scared that kids were going to pilfer grandpa’s MJ and bring it to school (as they are allegedly doing with grandpa’s other prescription meds). Then he read aloud a letter from a “concerned citizen” type (read: tobacco industry player) who whined about how we’d acted so terribly toward tobacco interests (banning them from restaurants! curtailing their ads! taxes!) but now we were taking it easy on pot, which “has to be smoked in cigarette form.” At which point I decided to turn the radio off in order defuse my rising urge to break something.

  4. Rob in CT says:

    Damn, I hit post too quickly.

    More generally, the trend here is encouraging. I think this is one of those things where if you get some a group of states doing this and it doesn’t result in the zombie apocalypse, people will get over a lot of (unreasonable, IMO) fear over it.

    My only remaining concern is as regards DUI. It’s really too bad we don’t have the equivalent of a breathalizer for pot. Granted, we don’t have that for prescription meds either, but man that breathalizer is useful. Oh well. You can’t have everything I guess.

  5. Rob,

    There’s no breathalyzer for pot this is true. If by that you mean the little hand-held unit that police officers use on the side of the road, the results of which are not admissible in court but which are sufficient to establish probable cause of intoxication

    But, if an officer believes that the person they pulled over is impaired by a drug rather than alcohol then, as long as there is probable cause for arrest (i.e, failing the field sobriety tests and other indications of diminished capacity) then they have legal grounds to have a blood test taken that would measure the level of other drugs in the system.

  6. Rob in CT says:

    Doug – I’m not raising the issue as a real reason to keep pot illegal. I’m pro-legalization. It just means that cops will have to use their own discretion more and honestly I’m not terribly excited about that…

    Does the blood test give you real-time results? I may be going on faulty memory here, but I thought such a blood test would simply tell them that you had gotten high recently (could be a week or two ago)? If they’re accurate in the moment, some of my concern is alleviated.

  7. @Rob in CT:

    I didn’t assume you were making this an argument against legalization actually.

    The blood tests are apt to be more subject to challenge because of the way that THC and other drugs are metabolized by the body. However, it’s still possible to convict on a DUI without reference to any scientific test, whether it’s a blood test or the breathalyzer at the police station. You can do this based on testimony regarding driving behavior, witness testimony if available, the Defendant’s performance on the field sobriety tests, and the officer’s observation of the Defendant’s behavior. Since most DUIs that do end up going to trial are bench trials, this isn’t very difficult. From a defense attorney’s POV, DUI cases are getting to the point where they’re almost impossible to defend unless there was some error somewhere.

  8. jan says:


    I like him too, Jeremy. I also agree with his stance on marijuana. Cuomo is a rare non-ideological acting politician.

  9. al-Ameda says:

    On the basis of cost savings alone Cuomo’s proposal should be passed.

  10. Ian says:

    And after they’re done getting high, they can go down to 7/11 and wash out the cottonmouth with a tall, cool Big Gu….whoops.

    Kidding, of course. This is a good thing, and I really hope it passes. Just the opportunity cost alone of these people not being able to work because of the conviction makes it worth the while. Lot of unfulfilled potential out there.

  11. Racehorse says:

    I agree with this proposal. Let’s get these people out of jail so there will be room for the people who are consuming large soft drinks in NYC.

  12. mattb says:

    Hard to believe that there are still a lot of NY conservatives who would, to this day, rather have had Paladino.


    Cuomo is a rare non-ideological acting politician.

    I think what you mean to say is “partisan” versus ideological. There’s nothing wrong with being ideological – if fact, I think it’s typically better to be ideological (driven by a coherent set of guiding ideas) than by party belief (which means that you are all for something, unless of course the opposing party is for it, then you are against it).

    Cuomo’s a pragmatist, and ironically (on this topic) someone who would have been considered a Rockefeller Republican a few decades ago (socially progressive and more-or-less fiscally pragmatic, if not conservative).

    I suspect, however, that when 2016 Presidential race comes, he’ll be rebranded by most on the right as the most liberal and business unfriendly candidate we have ever seen (or at least almost as bad as Obama).

  13. mattb,

    Based on my discussions with on-the-ground New York Republicans, the whole Paladino episode is viewed as a massive embarrassment.

  14. Jeremy says:


    He’s kind of–but not exactly–the Democrats’ Ron Paul, though I don’t think he attracts nearly the same amount of crazy. (I dunno, there might be insane Cuomorions out there.)


    Unfortunately, you may be right. Although by 2016 the fever may have broken and the crazy will have been expelled. Maybe. We can only hope.

  15. Notwithstanding the issues regarding his personal life (the divorce from/ the Kennedy daughter), Cuomo strikes me as a smarter politician than his father. And, if he wants to run for President, he won’t prevaricate the way his father did.

    (And on that last point, the answer to the question of what Cuomo’s 2016 plans are will be found in whether or not he marries his long-time girlfriend.)

  16. mattb says:

    @Doug Mataconis:

    on-the-ground New York Republicans, the whole Paladino episode is viewed as a massive embarrassment.

    Yeah… if we were talking about pragmatic republican’s, I totally agree. If we’re talking about local talkers, tea partiers, and certain members of my family then it’s entirely different ball game.

    And generally, it hurts any NY Republican over a certain age to say anything nice about a member of the Cuomo family. But that’s more about tribablism than results.

  17. mattb says:

    *sigh* tribalism… I wish the edit feature worked in Chrome.

  18. SKI says:

    In a positive sign, Bloomberg has backed Cuomo’s proposal.

  19. jan says:


    Democrat’s Ron Paul? Never looked at him that way. Basically saw him as not going in lock-step with his party’s philosophy 24/7. That’s refreshing, IMO, to see on both the left and right side of the spectrum.

  20. Racehorse says:

    If this comes to pass, watch Mayor Bloomberg try to put some kind of weirdo limit on it.

  21. Ron Beasley says:

    Here on the left coast in Oregon having an ounce or less has been a violation for years – like a parking ticket . In the city of Portland the police have been instructed to not enforce the violation because they really have better things to do with their time.

  22. Kirk says:

    Here in small town upstate NY, the cops target the young men too. And do illegal searches. Not necessarily minorities either, in that regard they are “equal opportunity”. I have personally complained to the police about the profiling. Of course, they deny profiling. They ask to search the car and pressure you to give in. Young people who do not know their rights or can’t stand up to the pressure, give in to the “request” for a search. I hope Cuomo succeeds with this proposal.

    I’m a registered Republican. Cuomo is the best governor I have seen. I will vote for him whenever he runs for president. And he will eventually run for pres.

  23. Ron Beasley says:

    @Doug Mataconis: I am not suggesting that driving stoned is a good idea but it really is different than driving drunk. You are really not nearly as impaired. In fact when you are stoned you don’t really want to go anywhere much less drive. in my stoner days I remember arguments about who was going to call to order a pizza but no arguments about who was going to drive to pick one up.
    But there probably no way to test for an cannabis high since the THC stays in the bloodstream for weeks. I don’t really think that’s a problem.

  24. J-Dub says:

    @Ron Beasley: If you see someone driving 20 miles an hour under the speed limit, they might be stoned.

    All things considered marijuana is much less dangerous than alcohol, especially if you don’t smoke it. Alcohol makes people aggressive and sometimes violent. Not the case with marijuana, probably the opposite. I often wish my father had been a stoner rather than an alcoholic. It would have made him much more pleasant to be around.

  25. J-Dub says:

    Our drug laws are a joke. You should read about how Oxycontin came into widespread use (and now abuse). It was originally only approved for terminal cancer patients because it was so horribly addictive. The present owners bought the company that made it and essentially just re-marketed it as a pain killer for general use. Now its one of the most abused drugs in the country and far more dangerous than marijuana.

  26. Neil Hudelson says:

    @Ron Beasley:

    I’m assuming your stoner days were quite awhile ago. The amount of THC in pot back then, compared to pot now, is usually staggering less. That is, pot–even cheap stuff–has been cultivated to be much, much more powerful. I would not trust even my most ardent stoner friends–those who have a tolerance far above a ‘normal’ person–to drive while high.

    Just like alcohol, reactions are slowed by a considerable amount and judgement is impaired. They may be impaired in a different way, but it is still impaired. Nope, I think with driving the societal tolerance for stoned-driving should be the same as the societal tolerance for drunk driving. That is, not much at all.

  27. matt says:

    @Neil Hudelson: Pot isn’t “just like alcohol” when it comes to driving. Studies have shown that drivers who are high have statistically the same chance of being involved in an accident as those who are drug free. As for alcohol those same studies have shown a marked increase in the odds of having an accident. How is that possible? Well those studies show that people who are high are aware of their impairment and take steps to reduce the risk of an accident. Meanwhile those under the effects of alcohol consistently exhibit the opposite tendencies and engage in activities that increase the risk of an accident.

    If you could be bothered to look up and read some unbiased studies of pot and alcohol you wouldn’t be inclined to make such ignorant statements. In the age of the internet there’s no excuse for clinging to junk science output by the propaganda arm of the USA government.

  28. Rob in CT says:

    @Neil Hudelson:

    From my own experience, this rings true. Or truish. There’s no question in my mind that when I’ve been high, driving is a BAD IDEA.

    It may be, Matt, that booze is worse. I can see how booze might result in more – and more serious – accidents. But claiming being high on MJ doesn’t impair you? COME ON. Been there, done that, no question about it.

  29. Rob in CT says:

    @Rob in CT:

    Crap. Serves me right for skimming.

    Matt, I apologize. I didn’t read this part properly the first time around:

    Well those studies show that people who are high are aware of their impairment and take steps to reduce the risk of an accident. Meanwhile those under the effects of alcohol consistently exhibit the opposite tendencies and engage in activities that increase the risk of an accident.

    That does make total sense. This is the old “I stopped at the stop sign and waited for it to turn green!” thing. Or was that just me? 😉

    Still… you’re impaired. Even if you are aware of it and take steps to mitigate, you’re impaired. Thus, I’m still with Neil on this part:

    I think with driving the societal tolerance for stoned-driving should be the same as the societal tolerance for drunk driving. That is, not much at all.

  30. Matt says:

    @Rob in CT: You’re also impaired as a driver if you’re talking. You’re impaired as a driver if you’re listening to a radio. You’re impaired as a driver if you’re road raging. You’re impaired as a driver if you’re drinking or eating. You’re impaired as a driver if you have a bad cough or allergies….

    Did you see the study where they compared the effects of sleep deprivation on driving to the effects of drinking before driving? Last study I read found that drivers were impaired even if they slept 6 straight hours.

  31. Matt says:

    Seriously though the studies focusing on accidents in states that have legalized medical marijuana are quite interesting. In several cases they noted a drop in alcohol related crashes and no noticeable increase in crashes involving marijuana.

  32. matt says:

    @Rob in CT: Are you serious about the stop sign? I think I come from a different generation. We got stoned off our asses while playing videos games and engaging in physical activities. My ability to completely pwn sober people in first person shooters while ripped was near legendary in my circle. Getting a bit nostalgic but those days are gone 🙁