Police: decriminalization is no green light for weed

This May 20, 2019 file photo shows marijuana plants in a grow room using green lights during their night cycle in Gardena, Calif.  While New York is on the brink of decriminalizing the possession of less than two ounces of marijuana, police professionals say the substance remains banned and anyone defying the law could still face legal consequences.


ALBANY -- While New York is on the brink of decriminalizing the possession of less than two ounces of marijuana, police professionals say the substance remains banned and anyone defying the law could still face legal consequences.

"Troopers are instructed to enforce the laws as written, and that will continue," said William Duffy, spokesman for the State Police.

The new decriminalization legislation awaits the signature of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, though he has signaled he fully supports the measure.

It would reduce the maximum fine for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana from $100 to $50. The possession of between one and two ounces of marijuana would go from being a misdemeanor to a violation carrying a fine of no more than $200.

Those with previous convictions for marijuana offenses that would be classified as a violation under the new scheme could have those charges vacated and have the records of the court cases expunged.

Cuomo has cast marijuana decriminalization as an advance in a legislative session that he said embraced "the most aggressive agenda in modern political history."

The governor and many of his fellow Democrats had advocated for the full legalization of marijuana, along with regulated commercial sale of the drug that remains a banned substance under federal statute.

Deputies are prepared to cite anyone they encounter who is possessing marijuana with a violation -- or more serious charges, if warranted, said Delaware County Sheriff Craig DuMond.

"We're not going to do anything differently," DuMond said.

While the State Police suspended marijuana detection training for its K-9 unit dogs, DuMond said his department will continue to arrange for pot-sniffing training for the dogs it acquires.

"A the end of the day, if a person has multiple pounds of marijuana in their vehicle, it's still going to be a felony offense," he said.

In Plattsburgh, Clinton County Sheriff David Favro said the decriminalization legislation appears to be the product of a complicated compromise, one that is challenging to evaluate because all of the pieces in the deal may not have been identified.

While the cultivation of marijuana would remain illegal under the legislation, Favro said police may be challenged by people who drew the erroneous conclusion that growing several marijuana plants in their backyard is suddenly allowed.

"I'm still a little perplexed on why they did this," Favro said. "I guess it could have been worse (if cannabis was legalized), but it wasn't"

The legislative sponsors of the marijuana legalization bill agreed to amend the legislation to include increased funding for training police drug recognition experts. However, when the legalization measure was bottled up in the state Senate, so was the proposal for more money for detection training.

DuMond said it would still make sense to invest more state dollars into expanding the cadre of recognition experts so those investigators will be available should New York join the states with legal cannabis.

"One of the things they should be doing now is putting the building blocks in place so they will be ready" before undertaking full legalization, DuMond said.

Thomas Mungeer, president of the New York State Troopers Police Benevolent Association, said his union would be pleased to see an expansion in the state's investment in drug recognition experts in order to counter drugged drivers on the roads.

As for the decriminalization measure, Mungeer said, "It's not really going to change the way my people patrol or do investigations or anything else."

Kassandra Frederique, director of the New York branch of the Drug Policy Alliance, one of the group's spearheading the fight for legalization, said the most significant feature of the decriminalization legislation was the allowance for expunging past cannabis convictions.

She noted that New York first decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana in 1977, yet some 900,000 people still faced cannabis charges in the ensuing years.

Frederique noted concerns linger that more marijuana charges will come despite the move to again relax New York's laws on weed. "History has shown us that (when given discretion) the police choose to arrest people," she said, explaining why her group has not ended its crusade for legalization.

Cuomo speculated in a radio interview Monday that marijuana legalization could have been approved in a statewide voter referendum. But he suggested some lawmakers shied away from supporting legalization because they feared the consequences of alienating 45 percent of the voters in their districts.

Joe Mahoney covers the New York Statehouse for CNHI's newspapers and websites. Reach him at jmahoney@cnhi.com.

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