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Few public pot arrests in the north country


The perps might be high, but the number of them in the north country is not.

Decriminalizing the possession of marijuana out in the open — one of the major debates in Albany last week — won’t affect many criminals or cops in the region. That’s because, owing to police tactics that differ from those in New York City, police arrest only a dozen people annually in Jefferson, Lewis or St. Lawrence counties on the public pot charge, compared with tens of thousands in New York City. Even so, Northern New York law enforcement officials are wary of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s proposal.

“We don’t use that kind of a tactic, where we just drive down the road and we see three or four people, pull over and pat them down and make them empty their pockets,” Jefferson County Sheriff John P. Burns said. “As far as us arresting people who smoke it out in public, that’s pretty rare.”

According to the state Division of Criminal Justice Statistics, police arrested 29 people in Jefferson County, 22 in St. Lawrence County and two in Lewis County in the past five years for having marijuana out in the open. Those figures include both those who were actually smoking weed and those who merely possessed it in public. The figures include only people whose most serious offense was the drug offense, not those who were arrested for more serious crimes and also were cited for having marijuana in public.

That’s compared with 222,424 people in New York City who were arrested over the past five years for having the drug in public.

Since the 1970s in New York, having less than 25 grams of marijuana in your pocket has been a violation similar to a traffic ticket, carrying a $100 fine. But if that marijuana is out in public — a joint behind the ear, for example — the offense counts as a higher level misdemeanor charge.

Mr. Cuomo is seeking to change the law so that public or private possession of marijuana would be a violation (smoking pot in public would still be a misdemeanor).

“Today’s announcement is about creating fairness and consistency in our laws since there is a blatant inconsistency in the way we deal with small amounts of marijuana possession,” Mr. Cuomo said last Monday in a news release announcing the push.

The legislation is intertwined with the New York Police Department’s “stop and frisk” policies. Marijuana in a suspect’s pocket becomes “public” — and a more serious offense — if he takes it out of his pocket at the direction of a police officer.

Mr. Burns, the Jefferson County sheriff, said that if someone took marijuana out of his pocket during a search, a deputy would charge that person only with the violation.

The NYPD approach “wouldn’t happen here,” Mr. Burns said.

He said the most common place for pot arrests is the Jefferson County Fair, where a half-dozen people could be busted for lighting up behind trailers or tents.

“The everyday, that’s pretty rare,” he said.

Those pot smokers still would be charged with the misdemeanor because they were actually burning the drug.

Like other law enforcement officials, and Senate Republicans who must pass the bill, Mr. Burns takes issue with the amount of marijuana that a person would be able to have in public. Twenty-five grams of medium-quality marijuana has a street value of $300, Mr. Burns said.

“You’re going to have people that are carrying around 24 and a half grams of marijuana,” Mr. Burns said. “That’s a lot of pot. It’s a big deal.”

He said that the violation should come with a heavier fine, in the neighborhood of $500.

Cindy F. Intschert, the Jefferson County district attorney, also voiced concerns about the proposal. She said that passing the law could send the message that it’s OK to possess drugs. Perhaps it should be targeted more specifically to cases where a police officer instructs the person to take the pot out of his pocket, she reasoned.

“If that’s what the change in the law is designed to correct, there are other ways to write it,” she said.

“Why make it easier for the element who is already breaking the law?” Lewis County Sheriff Michael P. Carpinelli said. “It’s one more step closer to legalizing marijuana.”

Mr. Carpinelli, a past Rochester city police officer, acknowledged that public pot arrests are much more prevalent in an urban setting. However, he said, lessening the consequences could give people greater license to light up in picnic areas or other public venues.

“What message is that sending to our youth?” he asked.

Assemblyman Kenneth D. Blankenbush, R-Black River; Assemblywoman Addie J. Russell, D-Theresa, and state Sen. Patricia A. Ritchie, R-Heuvelton, all said in interviews that they don’t support the proposal. The Legislature must pass the bill and the governor must sign it before it can become law.

Times staff writer Steve Virkler contributed to this report.

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