The district attorneys from Franklin and Essex counties say changes to marijuana-possession penalties that Gov. Andrew Cuomo proposed this week won't have a big impact on communities here.
Meanwhile, state lawmakers from the North Country have mixed reviews for the proposal, as do candidates running for office.
Cuomo's proposal, announced Monday, aims to cut the penalty for plain-view possession of a small amount of marijuana from a criminal misdemeanor to a violation carrying a fine of no more than $100. The proposal is aimed at defusing criticism of the New York Police Department's stop-and-frisk policy in minority communities, according to news reports.
Possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana is already a violation in New York state, but if the individual is seen smoking or carrying the pot in public view, the penalty becomes a misdemeanor. The Cuomo proposal would keep smoking pot in public as a misdemeanor.
Small impact for North Country
Franklin County District Attorney Derek Champagne said he was tentatively going to agree to the measure last year when he was trying to negotiate a bill that let the state start collecting DNA samples from criminals.
He said the law Cuomo is looking to fix is one that is mainly used in New York City and other urban areas.
"That particular statute is one that is rarely used in the North Country," Champagne said. "We typically don't get hung up on the prosecution end on amounts in the range of where the governor's speaking."
Most small amounts of marijuana in upstate New York are charged as violations.
In the North Country, and especially in areas like the border-straddling Awkesasne Mohawk Reservation, law enforcement is more concerned with larger cases with dozens of pounds of drugs. When it reaches that volume, Champagne said it's clear that the carrier is dealing and should be charged appropriately.
"So for us it really has no impact," Champagne said of Cuomo's proposal. "I don't necessarily oppose it, and I don't think it's necessarily going to have any negative impact on the North Country in any way, shape or form."
Essex County District Attorney Kristy Sprague agreed.
"This is basically a non-issue for upstate New York," she said.
Sprague said she's fine with lawmakers changing the penalties for public possession of marijuana but urged the Assembly to act quickly on a bill that would criminalize possession of synthetic pot and bath salts, manmade drugs that can have severe hallucinogenic effects on the brain.
Assemblywoman Teresa Sayward, R-Willsboro, said she supports Cuomo's proposal.
Sayward said she knows many people won't agree with her, but she believes society has bigger problems than a small amount of marijuana in a person's pocket.
Assemblywoman Janet Duprey, R-Peru, said she consulted with law-enforcement officials in the North Country and the Capital Region, who told her Cuomo's proposal wouldn't have a significant impact.
"This is really targeting somebody who uses a small amount for personal use," Duprey said. "Should they? Probably not. There's still a $100 fine and a $175 surcharge. It's not like they walk away with nothing."
State Sen. Betty Little said, as she understands it, the amendments to the law would allow a person to possess up to 25 grams of marijuana in public view.
"I haven't seen what 25 grams of marijuana amounts to, but I've been told it'd be like a small sandwich bag full," Little said. "You could have people walking around with it and have it in full public display."
Little said the intent behind the proposal might be good, but it could have unforeseen consequences.
Candidates weigh in
Karen Bisso and David Kimmel, two Republicans challenging Duprey in New York's new 115th Assembly District, both said Cuomo's proposal distracts from the real issue: the economy.
Bisso said Albany "is using spin, buzz words and deflection" to distract people from the larger issues at play.
"We have rampant unemployment and businesses leaving the state," she said. "Instead of working on things which will revitalize this state, we are working on social issues which will divide us instead of unite. In all cases of the law, there are different levels of the offense. In most instances, these charges are usually plea bargained down to the violation."
Kimmel said any legislation Cuomo proposes should serve to bolster the economy and boost consumer confidence. He said by easing penalties for marijuana possession, Cuomo is redefining "what is normal in our society.
"It is generalized in the realm of commerce," Kimmel said. "Rather than having confidence, our trade partners inside and outside the state are constantly left scratching their collective heads as they try to figure out what makes New York tick."
Queensbury town Supervisor Dan Stec, a Republican running for the new 114th Assembly District, said he would caution the governor against proposing measures that minimize the negative impact drugs have on society.