Wading into the debate over stop-and-frisk police tactics, Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo plans to ask legislators on Monday for a change in New York State law that would drastically reduce the number of people who could be arrested for marijuana possession as a result of police stops.
The governor will call for the decriminalization of possession of small amounts of marijuana in public view, administration officials said. Advocates of such a change say the offense has ensnared tens of thousands of young black and Latino men who are stopped by the New York City police for other reasons but after being instructed to empty their pockets, find themselves charged with a crime.
Reducing the impact of the Bloomberg administration’s stop-and-frisk policy has been a top priority of lawmakers from minority neighborhoods, who have urged Mr. Cuomo, a Democrat, to pay more attention to the needs of their communities. The lawmakers argue that young men found with small amounts of marijuana are being needlessly funneled into the criminal justice system and have difficulty finding jobs as a result.
By deciding to get involved in the biggest law enforcement issue roiling New York City, Mr. Cuomo is again inserting himself into the affairs of the city in a way that has been welcomed by some and resented by others. He previously brokered the resolution of a dispute over legalizing street hails of livery cabs, and he ordered the city to stop requiring that food stamp applicants be fingerprinted.
In this case, the governor would be acting against the wishes of Mayor Michael R. Bloomberg, and in spite of a September directive from the police commissioner, Raymond W. Kelly, who instructed officers not to arrest people who take small amounts of marijuana out of their pockets or bags after being stopped by the police.
The Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group critical of the Police Department’s marijuana arrest policies, found that only a modest decline in the arrests followed Mr. Kelly’s memorandum.
Though the governor’s legislation does not address the high number of stops by the police, it would take aim at what many black and Hispanic lawmakers as well as advocacy groups say has been one of the most damaging results of the aggressive police tactics: arrest records for young people who have small amounts of marijuana in their pockets.
“For individuals who have any kind of a record, even a minuscule one, the obstacles are enormous to employment and to education,” said Donna Lieberman, the executive director of the New York Civil Liberties Union. “When it’s really a huge number of kids in the community who go through this, and all have the same story, the impact is just devastating.”
The police in New York City made 50,684 arrests last year for possession of a small amount of marijuana, more than for any other offense, according to an analysis of state data by Harry G. Levine, a sociologist at Queens College. The arrests continued — one in seven arrests made in the city was for low-level marijuana possession — even as Commissioner Kelly issued his directive.
Mr. Bloomberg has opposed ending arrests for the possession of small amounts of marijuana. His administration has argued that the arrests serve to reduce more serious crime by deterring drug dealing and the violence that can accompany the drug trade. A spokesman for the mayor declined to comment Sunday.
Mr. Cuomo plans to announce his support for the change at a news conference at the Capitol. While his push comes late in the year’s legislative session, which is scheduled to end June 21, the governor has been successful in his first 17 months in office at focusing attention on a limited number of legislative priorities and persuading lawmakers to address them quickly.
“This proposal will bring long overdue consistency and fairness to New York State’s Penal Law and save thousands of New Yorkers, particularly minority youth, from the unnecessary and life-altering trauma of a criminal arrest and, in some cases, prosecution,” an administration official said in an e-mail.
It would also save law enforcement “countless man-hours wasted” on arrests and prosecutions “for what is clearly only a minor offense,” the official added.
Officials in the Cuomo administration said the marijuana-possession arrests were problematic in part because they subjected New Yorkers, many of them young, to the process of being booked, retaining a lawyer and carrying the stigma of having been arrested. And they argued that the arrests were harming the relationship between the police and young people.
More than a dozen states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana, including Connecticut last year and California the year before. In New York, the Legislature in 1977 reduced the penalty for possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana to a violation, which carries a maximum fine of $100 for first-time offenders.
But it remains a misdemeanor if the marijuana is in public view or is being smoked in public, and lawmakers and drug-reform advocates have argued that the misdemeanor charge is often unfairly applied to suspects who did not have marijuana in public view until the police stopped them and told them to empty their pockets.
“Now it’s in public view,” Professor Levine said. “If you go by the police reports, all around New York City, there are people standing around with their palms outstretched with a bit of marijuana in them.”
From 2002 to 2011, New York City recorded 400,000 low-level marijuana arrests, according to his analysis. That represented more arrests than under Mr. Bloomberg’s three predecessors put together — a period of 24 years. Most of those arrested have been young black and Hispanic men, and most had no prior criminal convictions.
Mr. Cuomo’s action comes after a number of state legislators and City Council members, many of them representing neighborhoods with large minority populations, have sought ways to force change at the Police Department.
In Albany, some lawmakers have proposed legislation that would prevent police officers from stopping people based only on their race or ethnicity, and that would create an inspector general to oversee the Police Department.
And Assemblyman Hakeem Jeffries, Democrat of Brooklyn, and State Senator Mark J. Grisanti, Republican of Buffalo, have pressed a bill to end low-level marijuana arrests.
Mr. Cuomo’s proposal would reduce the penalty for the possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana in public view to a violation.
It would continue to classify public marijuana smoking as a misdemeanor, unlike the bill proposed by Mr. Jeffries and Mr. Grisanti, which would decriminalize it.
A version of this article appeared in print on June 4, 2012, on page A1 of the New York edition with the headline: Cuomo Seeks Cut In Frisk Arrests.