June 14, 2012

NEW YORK GOV. Andrew M. Cuomo (D) announced this month that he will push for a new marijuana policy in the Empire State, reducing public possession of small amounts of pot from a criminal misdemeanor to a violation carrying a $100 fine. California, Connecticut and a handful of other states already have similar laws, and legislators in New Jersey began considering a version of the policy last month.

As marijuana use has become more culturally acceptable and as policymakers have examined the many costs of strict anti-pot policies, states and localities have proposed plenty of bad ways to loosen up. Mr. Cuomo’s is more sensible than many.

Last year, New York City police arrested 50,000 people — half under 25 and 82 percent black or Latino — on public pot possession, many picked up under the city’s controversial “stop-and-frisk” policy. Though prosecutors don’t always charge those brought in, a marijuana arrest, even for possessing a small amount of the drug, can taint a young person’s record, making it more difficult to get a job and turn away from larger-scale crime. That hardly seems fair, or otherwise desirable.

Yet many of the ways some state and local officials — or, in some cases, voters — have tried to ease marijuana restrictions haven’t been wise, either. In the 1970s, cities such as Berkeley, Calif., explicitly barred police from enforcing state marijuana ordinances, which undermined basic respect for law. More recently, some states have experimented with “medical marijuana” as a sort of thinly veiled back-door legalization. Colorado and Washington state will consider outright legalization in November, which could drastically increase use of the drug and would directly conflict with federal policy.

Maybe the answer, then, is for police departments or individual officers to let more pot crimes slide instead of arresting every young person with a joint? That could lead to arbitrary enforcement and racial disparity in those who are arrested.

Mr. Cuomo’s approach recognizes the challenge of maintaining respect for the law without sending large numbers of young people to prison for small-time marijuana violations. The governor would still demand a penalty — that $100 fine — and police would be more likely to apply the law consistently. That could improve enforcement and increase acceptance of New York’s “broken windows” policy, which relies on the notion that police shouldn’t let small-time lawbreakers off the hook.

Public opinion seems to be moving in the direction of easing marijuana restrictions, perhaps eventually legalizing the drug. As leaders react, they must also remain sensitive to the legitimate claims on the other side of the debate — about public safety, the harms of drug use, honesty in policymaking and respect for the law.