Marijuana is such a flashpoint in our culture that any proposal to change the laws that regulate it is bound to be controversial.
But a law change Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposes is so slight and inconsequential that the state Legislature should pass it without agonizing too much.
Gov. Cuomo's plan, announced June 4, would cut the penalty for plain-view possession of a small amount of marijuana from a criminal misdemeanor to a violation, resulting in a fine of no more than $100. Possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana is already a violation in New York, but if the individual is seen smoking or carrying the pot in public view, the penalty becomes a misdemeanor. The Cuomo proposal would keep smoking pot in public as a misdemeanor, but for possession of less than 25 grams, it would make no difference whether the pot is visible.
That makes sense. First of all, visibility makes no difference to public safety, and secondly, it's subjective: What one police officer considers visible, another might not.
Police in the North Country already don't distinguish between plain-view or hidden pot; they just write up all small-amount possession charges as violations. The Franklin and Essex County district attorneys say the governor's proposal wouldn't have an impact on the North Country.
"This is basically a non-issue for upstate New York," Essex County DA Kristy Sprague told the Enterprise. She's more concerned about criminalizing synthetic pot and "bath salts," which appear to have much more dangerous and unpredictable effects on the brain.
Franklin County DA Derek Champagne said, "We typically don't get hung up on the prosecution end on amounts (of pot) in the range of where the governor's speaking." He said he's more concerned about getting tough on the dealers and traffickers possessing dozens of pounds of the drug; it's a huge black-market commodity that gangs smuggle across the U.S.-Canada border.
That's a big deal. Whether a joint is visible behind a person's ear or hidden in a backpack makes no substantive difference.
Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, R-Willsboro, said society has bigger problems than a small amount of marijuana in a person's pocket. Assemblywoman Janet Duprey, R-Peru, said, "This is really targeting somebody who uses a small amount for personal use. Should they? Probably not. There's still a $100 fine and a $175 surcharge. It's not like they walk away with nothing."
This comes at a time when Tupper Lake schools are cracking down on marijuana, but there's no irony there. Violation or misdemeanor, visible or not, pot possession is still a crime. The drug definitely hampers student learning and causes other problems in schools. When school officials observe that the problem has gotten worse, they need to deal with it.
As slight a legal change as this is, it's symbolic of a larger debate. Could it be a slippery slope? Could New York go the way of California, fighting the federal government over conflicting pot laws? What happens next will be interesting.
Marijuana is a fence-sitter in the drug spectrum: It's significantly less dangerous than other common illegal drugs, but its mind-altering properties are still significant, especially with newer strains specially bred for that purpose. Our society continues to struggle with how to deal with it in relation to harder drugs, as well as in relation to legal but still-consequential drugs like alcohol.
Someday, hopefully, we'll have it figured out. Until then, we should be as practical as possible.