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By Robert B. Whitney

In his State of the State address in January, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo proposed reducing the penalty for possession of marijuana held in public view from a misdemeanor to a violation. Currently people charged with a misdemeanor would face a fine and possible incarceration.

In the new proposal, people convicted of marijuana in public view would receive just a violation and would face only a fine. This would make the penalties equal for private possession and public display of marijuana.

Cuomo’s justification for this change is that the punishment for open view of marijuana is currently too severe and disproportionately affects minority populations. In the new proposal, public view of up to 25 grams of marijuana is a violation. However, 25 grams of marijuana is the equivalent of 25 to 50 marijuana cigarettes. This amount is sufficient to supply a heavy smoker at least a week’s worth and suggests the person in possession has the intent to sell, which then should remain criminal activity.

If Cuomo was interested in lessening the penalties of possession of personal amounts of marijuana, he could do so without allowing such high amounts. Possibly reducing the amount to the equivalent of no more than a day’s supply would be appropriate.

In addition, it has been shown that up to one in 10 people who smoke marijuana may have a significant and persistent pattern of abuse. Therefore, we recommend that people found to have marijuana in public view should be required to undergo an evaluation to determine whether they are abusing or dependent on this substance.

Providing education on substance use and abuse and, if needed, brief intervention may be highly beneficial. We suggest that people who complete an assessment and, if needed, an intervention, could have their charges reduced.

This would help address the legal stigma that the governor is trying to tackle. If current policies concerning marijuana possession are disproportionately affecting minorities, other means of correcting this unfair practice should be sought.

Lastly, as quoted in The Buffalo News on Feb. 25, Sen. Diane Savino, D-Staten Island, says, “Cuomo’s talk about changing marijuana possession laws could benefit the push to medical marijuana.” For different reasons, we are concerned that she may be right. We reiterate: changes in marijuana laws need to be done carefully to avoid increasing the use of marijuana, a dangerous substance with no approved medical uses.

Cuomo and all state legislators should really study medical marijuana and its effects before approving something that could have severe negative impacts on our state.

Dr. Robert B. Whitney is a retired physician from ECMC. He is also on the board of directors for the Erie County Council for the Prevention of Alcohol and Substance Abuse.