The New York City Police Department, the mayor and the city’s top prosecutors on Monday endorsed a proposal to decriminalize the open possession of small amounts of marijuana, giving an unexpected lift to an effort by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo to cut down on the number of people arrested as a result of police stops.
Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, whose Police Department has arrested about 40,000 people each year for marijuana possession, said the governor’s proposal “strikes the right balance” in part because it would still allow the police to arrest people who smoke marijuana in public.
The marijuana arrests are a byproduct of the Police Department’s increasingly controversial stop-and-frisk practice. Mr. Bloomberg and police officials say the practice has made the city safer, but, because most of those stopped are black or Hispanic, the practice has been criticized as racially biased by advocates for the minority community.
Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, framed the issue as one of racial justice as well as common sense, saying that the police in New York City were wasting time, resources and good will making tens of thousands of unnecessary arrests. Possession of small amounts of marijuana is only a crime if the marijuana is in public view or if it is being smoked in public, but many of the marijuana possession arrests have been occurring when the police order someone stopped to empty his or her pockets, making the marijuana visible — a phenomenon the governor called an “aggravated complication” of the stop-and-frisk practice.
“It becomes a question of balance,” the governor said of the city’s police stops. “Part of the balance is the relationship with the community. I think the N.Y.P.D. and the mayor are making efforts to work with the community.”
The governor’s announcement was cheered by lawmakers from minority neighborhoods as well as by civil rights groups, who are increasingly looking to Albany and to Washington in an effort to rein in what they decry as overly aggressive tactics on the part of the Bloomberg administration.
The support expressed by Mr. Bloomberg, prosecutors and police officials is likely to carry significant weight in the Republican-led State Senate, which is the key obstacle to passage of the bill in Albany during this year’s legislative session. Mr. Cuomo has amassed a strong track record of winning passage of legislation he embraces, and the speaker of the Assembly, Sheldon Silver, joined him at his news conference Monday, indicating that the Democrat-controlled Assembly would back the measure. The Republican Senate leadership has traditionally opposed legislation it views as soft on criminals.
Black leaders also cited the governor’s proposal as a rare recognition of — and attempt to remedy — what they describe as a cultural and legal double standard: that young African-American men are being arrested in large numbers for an activity — using marijuana — that is prevalent, but with less frequent legal consequences, among whites of the same age.
“Some of our police officers are making race-based discretionary decisions on who they’re going to arrest for low-level marijuana possession,” said Leroy Gadsden, the president of a branch of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People in Jamaica, Queens. “Therefore, of course, if you’re a black young male, even a female, you’re going to feel that you’re being targeted when you notice that your white counterparts are not being arrested for the same thing.”
The Rev. Al Sharpton praised Mr. Cuomo’s proposal as “a step in the right direction” in curbing what he described as racial profiling by the Police Department. And Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, a Brooklyn Democrat who has pushed legislation to end low-level marijuana arrests, said, “It cannot be criminal behavior for one group of people and socially acceptable behavior for another group of people, where the dividing line is race.”
A spokesman for Mr. Bloomberg rejected the notion that the Police Department acted with racial bias in arresting people for marijuana possession.
Under Mr. Cuomo’s proposal, the state would downgrade the possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana in public view from a misdemeanor to a violation, with a maximum fine of $100 for first-time offenders. It is already a violation to possess that amount without putting it into public view.
In September, facing growing pressure over the marijuana arrests, Police Commissioner Raymond W. Kelly issued a memorandum clarifying that the police were not to arrest people who take small amounts of marijuana out of their pockets after being stopped. A city spokesman said that low-level marijuana arrests had fallen by nearly a quarter since then.
Mr. Bloomberg, whose administration had previously defended low-level marijuana arrests as a means of deterring more serious crimes, said on Monday that Mr. Cuomo’s proposal was consistent with Mr. Kelly’s directive. Mr. Kelly made a rare trip to the Capitol to join Mr. Cuomo at the news conference as a way of demonstrating the city’s support for the governor’s proposal.
“This law will make certain that the confusion in this situation will be eliminated,” Mr. Kelly said, adding, “Quite frankly, it will make the application of this law much clearer.”
Mr. Cuomo said changing the law was a better approach in the long term, saying, “I think it puts the police in an awkward position to tell them, enforce some laws, don’t enforce other laws.”
“This is nice and clean: change the law, period,” the governor added.
The five district attorneys in New York City also endorsed the change in the law on Monday. The Manhattan district attorney, Cyrus R. Vance Jr., said that half of the 6,200 people who were charged with low-level marijuana possession last year in Manhattan had never been arrested before.
“This simple and fair change will help us redirect significant resources to the most serious criminals and crime problems,” Mr. Vance said. “And, frankly, it’s the right thing to do.”
But one Republican, Senator Martin J. Golden of Brooklyn, expressed concerns. He said that the enthusiasm among some lawmakers and advocacy groups for Mr. Cuomo’s proposal was “all about stop-and-frisk,” and, citing several young people in his district who had died of prescription drug overdoses in recent months, questioned the message it would send to young people about drug use.
Noting the 25-gram threshold for Mr. Cuomo’s proposal, he said, “That’s a lot of pot, my friend.”