While the Empire State’s legalization hopes fell short this year after seeing a wave of major support from around the state, New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo just signed off on the consolation prize: marijuana decriminalization. The legislation could help change the lives of nearly a million New Yorkers, thanks to a provision on expungements. The language in the bill that reduces penalties for up to two ounces of cannabis to a $200 fine, and $50 for less than an ounce, goes into effect in one month.
Cuomo has been noting how cannabis laws in New York disproportionately affect communities of color for some time and he took his firmest action yet today in actually addressing the issue. He also noted in a statement following the signing that his first attempt at “expanding decriminalization” was in 2013.
“Communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by laws governing marijuana for far too long, and today we are ending this injustice once and for all,” Cuomo said. “By providing individuals who have suffered the consequences of an unfair marijuana conviction with a path to have their records expunged and by reducing draconian penalties, we are taking a critical step forward in addressing a broken and discriminatory criminal justice process.”
Melissa Moore, deputy state director for Drug Policy Alliance New York, weighed in on the signing, saying it still fell short for those communities Cuomo referenced.
“The inability of the state legislature and Governor Cuomo to pass comprehensive marijuana legalization this legislative session means that black and Latinx individuals remain disproportionately in the crosshairs of harmful marijuana enforcement,” Moore said statement following the signing.
“Decriminalization alone is not enough to deal with the full impact of marijuana prohibition and just gives law enforcement discretion,” said Moore. “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. 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.”
Moore went on to speak of the 900,000 low-level marijuana arrests from the past two decades that would be impacted by the automatic expungement effort that Gothamist reported will be led by the state’s Division of Criminal Justice Services.
She stated that the law should not be considered “decriminalization.”
“It is critical that this bill is not mistaken as a ‘decriminalization’ measure, despite how lawmakers have advertised it,” she said, noting on the many instances of marijuana possession that would still be criminal under the new law, “allowing law enforcement the discretion to continue making arrests.”
For example, in 1977, New York “decriminalized” marijuana the first time. Under the law, New Yorkers would face a $100 fine if they possessed up to 25 grams of cannabis, and no criminal charges. But this didn’t stop New York’s law enforcement offers from spending the next few decades following discriminatory policing practices, including “stop-and-frisk.”
“As we have seen in the years following New York’s so-called decriminalization of marijuana in 1977,” Moore said, “anything short of comprehensive legalization means that black and Latinx individuals will remain disproportionately in the crosshairs of harmful enforcement practices.”
The nation’s oldest marijuana law reform organization also weighed in on the news.
“While the legislature failed to enact cannabis legalization and regulation in the Empire State, this new policy is surely a step in the right direction,” said NORML State Policies Coordinator Carly Wolf. “Many New Yorkers, a disproportionate number of whom are black and brown, who regularly feel the burden of a prior conviction will finally be able to find relief and get their lives back.”
In a further sign of the times in New York, while Cuomo was signing the decrim legislation today, Marijuana Moment reported Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer was cutting a ribbon at Canopy’s hemp industrial park. The company plans on putting $150 million into the effort.
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