When New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed changing the state law regarding public marijuana possession earlier this week to reduce the number of arrests, the move was as likely good politics as policy from his perspective.
Recent polling shows 56 percent of voters nationwide support full legalization of marijuana, if it were taxed and regulated like alcohol and tobacco. The survey, conducted by Rasmussen Reports on May 12, shows that just 36 percent of respondents opposed legalization. Other polling shows how the public has gradually moved to support legalization over the years.
Cuomo's proposal, unveiled Monday, is far less radical than full legalization – it merely seeks to make the penalties for private and public possession of small amounts of marijuana the same.
As a former state attorney general, the Democrat already has a tough-on-crime record to run on. And with the public's moderating opinion on marijuana use, both medicinally and recreationally, the man many say is an attractive presidential pick for 2016 is likely free and clear of any potential political blowback.
"I can't think of a case where there's pushback for reform, particularly not in New York at this time," says Robert Erikson, political science professor of Columbia University. "I think he calculates it's not a losing issue, possibly a winning one. We'll see if Republicans try and exploit it against him. But I think that's his calculation and my guess is that it's correct."
Cuomo said the move is about "creating fairness and consistency."
"There is a blatant inconsistency in the way we deal with small amounts of marijuana possession," he said at a press conference featuring lawmakers, district attorneys and law enforcement. "This is an issue that disproportionately affects young people — they wind up with a permanent stain on their record for something that would otherwise be a violation."
Critics have argued that the current law disproportionally affects youths of color and is unfair.
"We are making New York fairer and safer and ensuring that every New Yorker has access to a justice system that doesn't discriminate based on age or color," Cuomo said.
Morgan Fox, spokesman for Marijuana Policy Project, says his group, which advocates for decriminalization of marijuana, is pleased with the announcement but that Cuomo could go even farther.
"Just to be clear, what Gov. Cuomo is proposing is not decriminalizing larger amounts of marijuana; it's still only 25 grams, which is less than an ounce, but for public view," he says.
The loophole in New York law occurswhen a police officer finds someone with marijuana in their pocket, it is a civil offense butwhen they ask them to remove it, it becomes a criminal offense and carries much heavier penalties.
"There's absolutely no reason now for the tens of thousands of people who got arrested for marijuana possession for very small amounts in New York every year, for them to have criminal records for life when a simple civil citation would do," Fox says.
The move will also save the state money by reducing the load in the penal system, he says.
"New York spends about $75 million a year prosecuting people for simple marijuana possession," Fox says. "So imagine if you could cut that out and then multiply that by the rest of the states in this country."
Public perception about relaxing laws surrounding marijuana possession don't have as much to do with increased comfort with the use of medical marijuana as the fiscal arguments, he adds.
"I think what has been much more influential is people seeing that state and federal governments are spending hundreds of millions of dollars a year, if not billions of dollars a year, locking people up for something that's safer than alcohol," Fox says. "That's something that doesn't make sense to people in these tough economic times."