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Marijuana decriminalization in NY: Here's what the law will change

Penalties for possessing small amounts of pot will be reduced and many possession convictions will be expunged if Gov. Cuomo signs the legislation.

Possession of small amounts of marijuana will be

Possession of small amounts of marijuana will be decriminalized. Photo Credit: Getty Images / Bruce Bennett

The New York Legislature passed a bill late Thursday that will expunge many past marijuana possession convictions and reduce the penalty for possession of small amounts of the drug, but it falls short of the legalization bill advocates were pushing for.

The legislation, which had not yet been signed by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo as of Friday afternoon, “does do two good things,” said Emma Goodman, a staff attorney in Legal Aid Society’s special litigation unit, who worked with legislators on the push to legalize recreational marijuana. 

“It makes something that was a misdemeanor now a violation, and it automatically expunges old misdemeanor convictions,” she said. “That’s more than a lot of states have done. The problem is that it’s just getting rid of one very small amount of low-level offenses and it’s not actually legalizing marijuana … violations are still arrestable offenses in New York.”

The fact that most past convictions for possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana will be automatically expunged is something Goodman and others had been fighting for. 

“The automatic nature of (the legislation) is significant and does mean a lot more people are going to access the benefits of it,” she said.

The historically disproportionate arrests of people of color on possession charges necessitated the bill, its sponsor, Sen. Jamaal Bailey (D-Bronx) said.

“The misdemeanor charge for public view of marijuana possession gives those people convicted a criminal record that will follow them throughout their lives, potentially limiting their access to housing, access to education, affecting their ability to obtain employment, all leading to a potential inability to provide for their families,” he said in a statement.

“While this legislation falls short of the goal of legalization of adult-use cannabis, the ability to create a mechanism for expungement, both retroactively and forward-looking, is a step in the right direction in finally ending the heavy-handed war on drugs that has decimated communities of color.”

Here’s a breakdown of what the law will do:

  • Possession of less than two ounces of marijuana will be considered a violation, not a crime. As Goodman explained, the violation is still an arrestable offense, but it won’t result in a prison term or criminal record.
  • The penalty for possession of less than one ounce of marijuana will be lowered from $100 to $50 and won’t increase because of an individual’s criminal history. The penalty for possession of between one and two ounces will be $200, regardless of criminal history.
  • Most past convictions for marijuana possession of 25 grams or less will automatically be expunged. 
  • Marijuana will be added to the definition of smoking in the Public Health Law, so smoking marijuana will be prohibited anywhere smoking tobacco is prohibited.

Despite these changes, advocates said they will continue to fight for legalization and reinvestment in the communities that have been impacted by the criminalization of pot. 

“Actually addressing the legacy of harm from prohibition and targeted enforcement by comprehensively legalizing and reinvesting in communities is what policymakers need to deliver on,” Kassandra Frederique, New York director for Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement. “While it is disappointing that our leaders have once again failed to prioritize racial justice in New York, we will continue to fight on behalf of comprehensive reforms.”

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