By Chris Francescani
NEW YORK (Reuters) - New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced new legislation on Monday to decriminalize public possession of small amounts of marijuana, lowering the penalty from a misdemeanor to a non-criminal offense.
The measure - which strikes indirectly at the New York Police Department's controversial stop and frisk program - seeks to eliminate a nuance in state law that differentiates between public and private possession of the drug.
At present, first time offenders who are found to be carrying less than 25 grams of marijuana on their person are supposed to be issued a non-criminal violation ticket, similar to a traffic ticket, while those observed to be openly displaying a small amount of the drug - in an upturned palm, for instance - are often arrested on a misdemeanor criminal charge.
But critics of the NYPD's stop and frisk program say minority residents in high-crime areas are routinely arrested and charged criminally, following stops and searches by police that turn up small amounts of the drug in their pockets.
Those arrest records can turn up in background searches by landlords, employees and colleges, drug policy analysts said.
Misdemeanor marijuana arrests have skyrocketed in New York City in recent years, from about 2,000 a year in 1990 to more than 50,000 annually in 2010 and 2011.
Last year, police arrested 6,000 people in Manhattan alone for plain-view marijuana possession and they would have got a summons instead of being arrested under the proposed changes to the law, Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance said.
"The human costs to each defendant charged with a misdemeanor are serious. And the drain of resources in our office and the NYPD to process those 6,000 cases is significant," Vance said.
Cuomo called the move to lower the penalty "long overdue" and said it would address a "blatant inconsistency in the way we deal with small amounts of marijuana possession."
"This is an issue that disproportionately affects young people," Cuomo said. "They wind up with a permanent stain on their record for something that would otherwise be a violation. The charge makes it more difficult for them to find a job.
New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg and NYPD Commissioner Ray Kelly both expressed support for Cuomo's plan Monday.
Last September, Kelly issued a department-wide directive to stop arresting people for possessing small amounts of marijuana, unless the drug was displayed in plain view. But arrest rates did not drop significantly, according to drug policy analysts.
Mayor Bloomberg said in a statement on Monday morning that Cuomo's measure "strikes the right balance by ensuring that the NYPD will continue to have the tools it needs to maintain public safety - including making arrests for selling or smoking marijuana."
Advocates of a change in New York State's marijuana laws said the measure is sensible.
"The police would not be inhibited in any way from confiscating marijuana, and they could still take an individual down to the precinct, and if someone were to continue to possess marijuana, a judge would still have the option for a jail sanction,'' said Gabriel Sayegh, New York state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group that studies drug arrest data and lobbies for changes in state drug laws.
"But the possession alone, as opposed to the public smoking of marijuana, could no longer be cause for a misdemeanor criminal charge."
In 2010 and 2011, marijuana possession arrests accounted for one in every seven arrests, more than for any other offense, according to Sayegh. Misdemeanor marijuana arrests have hovered between about 29,000 and 52,000 every year since 1998, according to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.
(Reporting by Chris Francescani; Editing by Anthony Boadle)