If you are arrested for doing something you didn’t realize was against the law the judge will often tell you that “ignorance of the law is no excuse”. Knowing the law as it applies to activities you engage in is important for every citizen. If you drive, you need to know the traffic laws. If you own a bar you need to know the liquor laws. And, if you are one of the tens of millions of Americans who smoke marijuana, you need to know the marijuana laws.
Marijuana is a “Schedule One” drug according to the Federal government. That means there is no permissible use allowed for any purpose whatsoever, medical or otherwise. However Federal agents don’t typically go after individual users of marijuana; their resources are limited and they concentrate on bigger selling and smuggling operations and leave the small stuff to state and local police so here in New York State you need to know the state laws.
Back in the early 1970’s New York passed its infamous Rockefeller Drug Laws that imposed tremendous penalties for possession or sale of any illegal drug. Within a couple of years the politicians realized that large numbers of white youth, many in college and the children of their well-connected constituents, were getting sentenced to many years in prison for marijuana offenses so in 1977 they removed marijuana from the Rockefeller Drug Laws. They decriminalized personal possession of up to slightly under an ounce as long as it was not in public view or burning. That law still stands today.
If you have less than 25 grams of marijuana in your possession and you are not selling it or smoking it and it is not in public view (e.g. In you pocket, glove compartment, or sock drawer) the maximum fine is $100. and, it is a violation-level offense like a parking ticket.. no arrest, no criminal record. If, however, you are caught smoking it or waving it around on the street it is “in public view” and it becomes a misdemeanor, which is a crime and you can be arrested and get a criminal record.
So why does New York City lead the nation in marijuana arrests if New York State decriminalized personal possession over thirty years ago? Queens College sociology professor Harry Levine looked into this and here’s what he found. A typical scenario may occur as follows: Officers approach a group of people talking, perhaps on their porch or stoop and ask if any of them has anything on them that they shouldn’t have. They say that if they search them and find drugs things will go worse for them , they’ll be arrested so why not just let us see what you have now. Usually someone ignorant of New York States marijuana laws will remove some small amount of marijuana from his pocket figuring it’s no big deal. Well… it wasn’t a big deal as long as it remained in his pocket but now, by showing it to the officer it has moved “into the public view” and is a misdemeanor. Out come the cuffs and an arrest is made.
Even if the officers had searched him chances are the search would not have stood up in court and the charge dismissed. Officers have the right to “pat down” someone to feel for weapons but a thorough search of pockets requires probable cause which they didn’t have. There is no way that a joint or a small baggie of marijuana would feel like a gun or a knife. Voluntarily showing the marijuana to the officer however made the criminal charge possible.
What’s in it for the police? Levine’s sources in the NYPD say there are many benefits for them:
“Narcotics and patrol police, their supervisors, and top commanders in the police department benefit from the marijuana possession arrests. The arrests are comparatively safe, allow officers and their supervisors to accrue overtime pay, and produce arrest numbers that show productivity. When needed, commanders can temporarily shift narcotics police off making the misdemeanor possession arrests and assign them to other duties, which provides considerable flexibility. The marijuana arrests are also the most effective means available for obtaining information (including fingerprints, photographs, and potentially DNA samples) from people never before entered in the criminal justice databases.”
That may be nice for the police but for the arrestees getting busted is not only humiliating, expensive, annoying, and embittering; it gives them a criminal record that can hamper their educational and employment prospects for the rest of their lives. Protect yourself. Remember… ignorance of the law is no excuse.