Press Release  | 06/05/2012

Coalition Planning Massive Push to Pressure State Leaders to Pass Legislation That Would End the 50,000+ Annual Unlawful, Biased, Costly Marijuana Possession Arrests in New York

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Major Online Advocacy Campaign Features Powerful Video Testimonials; Hundreds Traveling to Albany to Pressure State Leaders

Drive to Pass Bi-Partisan Legislation Comes on Heels of Cuomo, Bloomberg and Kelly Announcing Support for Closing Major Loophole in State’s Marijuana Decriminalization Law

NEW YORK: On the heels of the announcement by New York Governor Cuomo, New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Police Commissioner Ray Kelly of their support for ending the practice of arresting individuals for possessing small amounts of marijuana in public view, a major coalition of local and national organizations is launching a massive effort in the final weeks of the legislative session to win reform.

Today, the coalition, which includes ColorOfChange, released an online advocacy campaign featuring powerful video testimonials from people who have been illegally searched and falsely charged for marijuana possession in New York City. Through email and social media outreach, the campaign is expected to reach an audience of hundreds of thousands in New York and beyond. At the conclusion of the video will be a petition to members of the New York State Legislature – including state senators and Senate President Dean Skelos -- demanding that they support bi-partisan legislation, S.5187 (Grisanti) / A.7620 (Jeffries), that would standardize penalties for marijuana possession, ending tens of thousands of racially biased and unlawful arrests for marijuana possession every year.

"Today the ColorOfChange community ramps up the call for what thousands of our New York City members have demanded in recent years -- an end to the illegal frisks and searches that lead to unjust marijuana arrests," said ColorOfChange Executive Director Rashad Robinson. "Every day, Black and Latino New Yorkers experience a New York that's markedly different from that experienced by their White counterparts, one in which they face abuse and humiliation at the hands of police. The current system ruins lives by saddling young people of color with criminal records that can exclude them from school, work and other vital opportunities. Today we join Gov. Cuomo and many other New Yorkers in calling for an end to a policy that does nothing to make our communities safe."

The first three of the 15-part video series were released today. Today’s videos include three compelling stories:

  • Andre was stopped, frisked, illegally searched and falsely charged with burning marijuana – even though he didn’t possess any marijuana and doesn’t even use marijuana. He is bravely fighting his arrest in court.
  • Colyssa was arrested on false charges of burning marijuana – but Colyssa didn’t even possess marijuana, nor does she use marijuana. To add insult to injury, as a result of the false charges, the court took away Colyssa’s daughter. She is now fighting to regain custody of her daughter.
  • Assmeblyman Hakeem Jeffries is the sponsor of bi-partisan legislation to close the major loophole in NY’s marijuana decriminalization law by standardizing penalties for possession of small amounts of marijuana. He’s leading the effort in Albany, with Governor Cuomo, to pass legislation that would end the biased arrests.

The videos can be found online: http://www.drugpolicy.org/NYarrestvideos. New videos will be posted every day over the next week.

Over the past two years, a campaign led by the Drug Policy Alliance, the Institute for Juvenile Justice Reform and Alternatives, and VOCAL has gained the support of City Council members, state legislators, Governor Cuomo, and, now, Mayor Bloomberg and Commissioner Ray Kelly. With the release of these videos and outreach to hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers, the campaign moves into its most active phase yet.

On June 12, hundreds of advocates will travel to Albany to pressure state leaders to pass bi-partisan legislation that would end the biased and costly practices of falsely arresting tens of thousands of people in New York every year for low-level marijuana possession. The following day, on June 13, community groups and national organizations will gather in New York City as the City Council votes on Resolution 0986, which calls for an end to these racially biased, costly, unlawful arrests. The resolution, co-sponsored by a majority of Council members, is expected to pass.

“These videos make evident the devastating realities of constitutional and civil rights violations facing communities of color,” said Kyung Ji Rhee, juvenile justice director at the Center for NuLeadership. “Governor Cuomo's recent call for reform is an important step in the right direction, and now we need the legislature to act. Community, faith and civil rights leaders are stepping up to win this reform and ensure racial equity, justice and better opportunities for our youth.”

"By taking up this issue, Governor Cuomo is taking a major step forward to ending the criminalization of young men of color,” said Alfredo Carrasquillo, community organizer for VOCAL New York and former victim of illegal marijuana arrests. “This shows great leadership by our governor to address racially biased practices and restore the relationship between communities of color and our government – now it’s time to pass the reforms, and that’s why we’re stepping up our efforts, in Albany and in streets across the state, advocating for justice.”

The arrest statistics say it all. Just 34,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession from 1981 to 1995 – but in the last 15 years over 600,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession. Nearly 51,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2011 alone, far exceeding the total marijuana arrests from 1981-1995. Most of those arrested, nearly 85%, are Black and Latino, despite federal government data on drug use showing that Whites use marijuana at higher rates.

As clearly demonstrated in research and media reports, most of these arrests are the result of illegal searches and false charges by the NYPD, as part of its controversial stop-and-frisk practices. Marijuana was decriminalized in New York State in 1977 – and that law is still on the books. Burning marijuana in public or having marijuana visible in public, however, remains a crime. But most people arrested for marijuana possession are not smoking in public, but simply have a small amount in their pocket, purse or bag. As the video testimonials show, NYPD engages in unlawful practice of mischarging and arresting people for marijuana possession after an illegal search; or, the arrest occurs when the person complies with an NYPD officer’s directive to “empty their pockets.” Many people comply, even though they’re not legally required to do so. If a person pulls mari¬juana from their pocket or bag, it is then “open to public view.” The police then arrest the person for burning or possession in public view. This process, the governor and advocates believe, needlessly criminalizes young people – especially young people of color – and harms the relationship between law enforcement and the community.

“These biased, costly arrests are undermining civil rights and public safety,” said gabriel sayegh, New York State Director for the Drug Policy Alliance. “We cannot and will not accept a scenario where the law is enforced differently for different groups of people based on their race or ethnicity. With leadership from Gov. Cuomo and Assemblyman Jeffries – and with the backing of leaders in law enforcement -- we may finally see long over-due reform, but we need the Senate and Assembly to act. Until they do, we’ll turn up the heat and remain focused on our demands for justice, equity, and fairness.”

Tony Newman, Drug Policy Alliance: 646-335-5384 or Timothy K. Rusch, ColorOfChange:  917- 399-0236

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