Cuomo on New York Pot Busts: 'Is It Worth the Price?'

Gov. Andrew Cuomo
New York Gov. Andrew wants to close the loophole in the state’s marijuana decrimininalization law that has led to thousands of arrests

In his 2013 State of the State speech, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo continued to call for "open view" possession of marijuana (in amounts of 15 grams or less) to be a violation punishable by a fine, rather than an arrestable offense.

More than 50,000 "open" or in "public view" marijuana arrests were made in New York State in 2011 and 2010. The vast majority of those arrests took place in New York City. For instance in 2011, there were 49,880 marijuana arrests in NYC and just  3,324 in the rest of the state.

While marijuana arrests were a low priority under Mayors Ed Koch and David Dinkins from the '70s to the early '90s, that changed dramatically during Mayor Giuliani's two terms, and has climbed with record-breaking numbers under Mayor Bloomberg (see chart below).

In his State of the State paper, Gov. Cuomo opposes the NYPD's controversial stop and frisk policy that leads to the vast majority of marijuana busts:

"Attention and concern over the growth in the use of stop and frisk has been accompanied by a similar concern over the exponential rise in arrests for low-level marijuana possession. Currently, New York State law makes 'open view' possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana a misdemeanor punishable by not more than one year in jail, while possession of the same amount of marijuana in the home is a violation - a non-criminal offense punishable by a fine.

"This distinction between public and private view possession stems from the passage of The Marihuana Reform Act of 1977. The legislature noted the stigma that attaches to those arrested and the waste of government resources in pursuing activity that is not criminal in nature:

"At the same time that the legislature decriminalized personal possession in the home, it instituted a criminal penalty for the same quantity possessed in 'public view.'

"In the first full year of enforcement of the separate 'open view' marijuana law, there were 514 arrests for the crime. Today, police arrest 100 times more people for this offense and these arrests comprise the single largest category of arrests in New York City, accounting for 15% of all NYC arrests and 20% of NYC misdemeanors.

"Approximately 10% of arrests result in convictions and 72% of those arrested had no prior conviction.

"The numbers tell a story: overwhelmingly, young people of color are arrested, processed and then released. But, arrest has consequences that persist after release. There is the humiliation of arrest and, in some cases, detention during processing. More enduring is the stigma of the criminal records that can have lasting and deleterious effects on the young person’s future. A 'drug' arrest can have a significant impact on a person’s life and key decisions made by employers, landlords, licensing boards and banks.

"The mounting number of arrests without convictions in this area is not cost-free for law enforcement or the public either. A cost-benefit analysis performed by Dr. Harry Levine of Queens College examined the costs to the police and courts of each arrest - approximately $764 in police and $336 in court costs. Based on the number of arrests, the analysis concluded that it costs approximately $75 million a year to support the current practice.

"Is it worth the price? Overwhelmingly, the answer is no: not worth it in dollars, in stigma or in impact. In order to fix the inequity in the law while still recognizing that possession in public is different from possession in one’s home, the Governor will propose legislation that makes 'open view' possession of marijuana in amounts of 15 grams or less a violation punishable by a fine."

Arrests for "open view" marijuana possession from 1978 to 2011:

Year • NYC • Rest of State • NY State Total

Mayor Ed Koch
1978    102        412           514
1979    122        548           670
1980    388        756           1,144
1981    894        835           1,729
1982    1,119     919           2,038
1983    1,463     1,028        2,491
1984    2,240     1,410        3,650
1985    2,236     1,568        3,804
1986    1,649     1,542        3,191
1987    2,697     1,360        4,057
1988    1,754     1,614        3,368
1989    998        1,278        2,276

Mayor David Dinkins
1990    824        1,187        2,011
1991    704        853           1,557
1992    720        842           1,562
1993    1,362     1,007        2,369

Mayor Rudolph Guiliani
1994    3,018      1,292        4,310
1995    5,538      1,532        7,060
1996    9,142      1,985        11,127
1997    17,614    2,012        19,626
1998    32,567    1,867        34,434
1999    33,473    2,160        35,633
2000    50,825    2,169        52,994
2001    41,244    2,303        43,547

Mayor Michael Bloomberg
2002    43,267    2,549        45,816
2003    38,158    3,217        41,375
2004    27,176    3,142        30,318
2005    28,880    2,814        31,694
2006    31,075    3,246        34,321
2007    38,153    3,104        41,257
2008    39,437    3,265        42,702
2009    45,577    3,059        48,636
2010    49,457    3,181        52,638
2011    49,800    3,324        53,124

Steve Bloom

Steve Bloom

Publisher of, former editor of High Times and Freedom Leaf and co-author of Pot Culture and Reefer Movie Madness.