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By Gabriel Sayegh

In his State of the State address on Wednesday, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo passionately called for reforming New York’s marijuana possession laws in order to reduce the enormous number of unlawful, biased and costly arrests. Noting the discrepancy in the law between public and private possession of marijuana, he proposed standardizing the penalties for possession of small amounts.

Possession of marijuana is the leading reason for arrests in New York City today, but it’s not supposed to be this way. In 1977, New York State removed criminal penalties for private possession of marijuana, and made possession in public view a misdemeanor.

Despite the legislative intent, more than 600,000 people have been arrested for marijuana possession during the last 15 years in New York. Most of these arrests occur in the Big Apple, with more than 50,000 people arrested for marijuana possession in 2011 alone. Most of these arrests are unconstitutional: People possessing marijuana in their pocket or bag are instead charged and arrested for possession in public view. Nearly 85 percent of those arrested are black and Latino, even though government data shows that young whites use marijuana at higher rates.

This creates, essentially, a two-tier system in which the law is applied differently depending on race. And this practice costs taxpayers at least $75 million a year. It’s drug-war insanity.

The governor’s proposal enjoys broad statewide support from community groups, faith and civil rights organizations, parents, young people, drug policy reformers and law enforcement, including Albany County Sheriff Craig Apple and New York Police Commissioner Raymond Kelly. But winning reform isn’t easy. Last year, Senate Republican leadership, in an act of drug-war extremism, opposed the measure.

After 40 years of a failed war on drugs, states across the country are finally proposing and, in some places, enacting more sensible drug laws. And while New York has led the way on many important drug policy reforms – rolling back the draconian Rockefeller Drug Laws and recently enacting a strong 911 Good Samaritan bill to prevent accidental overdose deaths – the Empire State’s marijuana policies have been long stuck in retrograde. Cuomo’s proposal is one important step in the right direction. His call to end the widely abused police practice of “stop and frisk” is another.

“Gov. Cuomo’s reform proposal, once passed, is an important step to help us secure a brighter future for our youth,” said Kyung Ji Kate Rhee, juvenile justice director at the Center for NuLeadership. “Instead of wasting money on unlawful marijuana arrests, we can invest in community development and provide resources that support our youth in reaching their best potential.”

Gabriel Sayegh is the director of the Drug Policy Alliance’s New York policy office.