NEW YORK, Feb 14 (Reuters) - New York City police will no longer hold people overnight for possessing small amounts of marijuana, and the city will back a state effort to treat those cases as violations instead of misdemeanors, Mayor Michael Bloomberg said on Thursday in his final State of the City address.
Bloomberg also announced a raft of other initiatives, such as promoting recharging stations for electric cars and legalizing for-profit youth hostels, seeking to put a final stamp on his 12 years in office before departing at the end of the year.
The city’s new marijuana policy matches a statewide legislative initiative that has stalled in the state capital. Bloomberg said he acted now so that fewer young men will be saddled with a criminal record. He also said it would allow police to better use resources.
“Until the (state) legislation is passed, this is an important step that will spare thousands of New Yorkers from the harm of spending a night in jail,” said Steven Banks, the top lawyer for the Legal Aid Society, which provides legal services to the poor.
Even so, the New York Civil Liberties Union said New York City conducts more marijuana arrests than any other city.
The mayor also offered an aggressive defense of the police department’s controversial Stop and Frisk policy, which civil liberties groups say unfairly targets black and Latino men.
The practice has also been criticized by many of those vying to succeed Bloomberg in office and is deeply unpopular in minority neighborhoods. Bloomberg said it has proven effective in keeping illegal guns off the streets.
“I understand that innocent people don’t like to be stopped,” Bloomberg said. “But innocent people don’t like to be shot and killed either. ... We have a responsibility to conduct them as long as I am mayor.”
Critics accused the mayor of standing up for a failed idea.
City Councilman Jumaane Williams, who represents the East Flatbush section of Brooklyn, said Bloomberg deserves credit for helping to lower crime and improve public health in the New York’s roughest neighborhoods, but criticized stop and frisk for inflicting more damage than good.
“Leadership also requires the courage and confidence to admit a misguided policy and refocus for the benefit of all,” Williams said.
Under Bloomberg’s proposal for arrests for the possession of small amounts of marijuana, an individual who produces an ID and proves to have no outstanding warrants would be simply be issued a ticket for a court appearance and released from the police precint. Currently, such individuals often end up being held overnight in jail because they must go through central booking.
Bloomberg has long sought to portray himself as an independent-minded politician: a mayor without party affiliation whose vast personal wealth has freed him from any dependence on political donors.
He stuck to that narrative on Thursday, vowing to beat back obstructionists who threaten his rezoning and development proposals, to push ahead with school reforms like an expansion of charter schools, and to continue to pressure the U.S. Congress into passing immigration reform and new gun control legislation.
“We have unfinished business - and only 320 days to complete it,” Bloomberg said. “The special interests and campaign donors have never had less power than they’ve had over the past 11 years.”
Bloomberg has added to his national reputation by targeting health issues ranging from public smoking to trans fats, salt and the sale of large-sized sugary sodas. On Thursday he proposed a ban on polystyrene foam, the packaging material that is widely popular for take-out food but is almost impossible to recycle.
Bloomberg referred to Styrofoam, Dow Chemical’s trademarked named for extruded polystyrene, but the company said it does not use Styrofoam to produce foam cups, trays or food containers.
Similar foam bans have been adopted in Los Angeles, San Francisco, Seattle and Portland, Oregon.
Andrew Moesel, a spokesman for the New York Restaurant Association, said he hopes “the concerns of the small businesses it affects - like cost increases - will factor in at least as heavily as environmental concerns.”