Support for Cuomo’s Pot Legislation Remains Divided

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The Democratically controlled state Assembly is expected to take up a version of Governor Andrew Cuomo’s bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana this week. But on the Senate side of the Legislature, Majority Leader Dean Skelos has indicated he does not support decriminalization.

According to a source with knowledge of the issue, Senate Republicans were contacted by the Governor’s office about changing the law on marijuana possession. The conference said it was willing to look at legislation that would keep people found with small amounts of marijuana during a routine frisk from being subject to jail time.

This, according to the source, was prior to Cuomo’s press conference on the legislation earlier this week. The Senate Republican majority, after conferencing on the issue, is dead-set against passing any form of decriminalization, the individual said.

Earlier reports had suggested that members in the Senate differed on what exactly a small amount of marijuana really means.

Governor Cuomo's bill has the amount at 25 grams. In other words, New Yorkers would be able to walk around the city displaying up to 25 grams of pot.  That's about 25 joints worth. Senate Majority Leader Dean Skelos suggested last week he thought that quantity was too high to decriminalize. 

However the quantity of 25 grams was borrowed directly from the law passed in 1977, when Albany first decriminalized non-public possession of small amounts of pot.

Lobbyists who worked to pass the 1977 law said the intent back then was to separate the marijuana users from the dealers.  Therefore, the legislators had to pick a threshold amount that would let most private pot smokers off the hook.  They gravitated to the ounce as the threshold limit that separated marijuana consumers from sellers. 

According to drug policy historians, back in the 1970s, people in New York tended to buy marijuana in larger quantities than they do now.  They had to stock up because marijuana was harder to procure, since there were more raids on dealers before private possession was decriminalized.  As a result, buying marijuana an ounce at a time — or 28 grams — was common. That unit was called "a lid," and it's about enough weed to fill an entire ziplock sandwich bag to the brim. 

During the 1970s, a lid cost between $30 to $60.  The same quantity would run between $330 to $600 today. 

Keith Stroup, a marijuana legalization advocate who was one of the leading lobbyists working to pass the 1977 law, said even then some legislators felt an ounce was too much to decriminalize.  

"They kept lowering the amount, and obviously in the end, the compromise that was made was ‘let's make it a little less than an ounce,’" Stroup explained. 

So Albany agreed on 25 grams. 

Stroup, who founded NORML, a group that supports marijuana legalization, said any legislator who thinks decriminalizing 25 grams of pot will allow pot sellers to deal in the open just doesn't get it.

"That's just crazy.  Dealers deal in pounds and kilos.  They don't deal in grams," he said.  "Can you imagine?  A dealer, even if he sold it in the smallest unit it's ever sold — like an eighth (of an ounce) — he'd have eight customers, and he'd be out of business."