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Assembly, Senate pass legislation to decriminalize marijuana


Fri, Jun 21st 2019 07:30 pm

Legislation also includes provisions to expunge records for those with low-level marijuana offenses

New York State Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes and Codes Committee Chair Joseph R. Lentol announced Thursday the Assembly passed legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana and expunge the records of those with low-level convictions (A.8420-A, Peoples-Stokes).

“The drug laws that are currently on the books have devastated our communities by disproportionately targeting people of color, forcing them to live with a criminal record that makes it harder to get a job or find housing,” Heastie said. “Decriminalizing marijuana, paired with expunging records for these low-level offenses, will help undo some of these decades-long injustices, and allow for people to be productive and successful. This is not the final step, but it will lay the groundwork for full decriminalization and legalization in the future.”

Peoples-Stokes said, “By passing this bill, we will bring hope and relief to thousands of New Yorkers through the expungement of low-level marijuana records and by preventing unnecessary arrests for small amounts of marijuana. This is an important first step to take towards marijuana justice, but there is more to be done. I will continue fighting for communities and people most harmed by the war on drugs, and remain committed to establishing wide-ranging marijuana-related policies that will improve lives and provide for community investment.”

Under current law, possession of small amounts of marijuana is punishable only by a fine for the first offense, but once the small amount is open to public view or being burned, it is often charged as a misdemeanor. This bill would eliminate the discrepancy in the law by defining unlawful possession in the first degree as possessing more than one ounce of marijuana, which would result in a maximum of a $200 fine. Unlawful possession of marijuana in the second degree would result in a maximum of a $50 fine.

A press release said the bill “would also ease the burden on New Yorkers, especially people of color who have been disproportionately impacted by current drug laws, who are living with a criminal record as a result of the possession of small amounts of marijuana. This criminal record can make it difficult for people to find gainful employment, housing and obtain other basic services. To rectify that injustice, the legislation would expunge the records of those with certain misdemeanor marijuana related records and or charges. The chief administrator of the courts would also be required to notify the commissioner of the Division of Criminal Justice Services, the heads of all appropriate police departments and law enforcement agencies that the charges and records have been expunged. Additionally, the chief administrator of the courts would ensure that no written or electronic report of a criminal history record search conducted by the Office of Court Administration contains information relating to said expunged record.

“This measure will help communities that have been directly impacted by marijuana criminalization, addressing the rampant disparity that exists in these drug charges, and will help remove the stigma attached to marijuana.”

The New York State Senate also passed legislation to this effect.

“Communities of color have borne the brunt of New York state’s marijuana drug laws. Our justice system directly reflects who we are as a society, and that is why the Senate majority is taking action to fix this broken system,” Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said. “This legislation is marking a momentous first step in addressing the racial disparities caused by the war on drugs. The Senate majority continues to move forward on full legalization and I thank Sen. Jamaal Bailey for his leadership on this issue.”

Bill sponsor Bailey said, “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.”

African-American and Latinx individuals are arrested at higher rates for misdemeanor marijuana possessions. In New York City, African-Americans are eight times more likely to be arrested on low-level marijuana charges while Latinx people are arrested at five times more. The racial disparities for arrests are wider for upstate cities. The New York Civil Liberties Union said African Americans living in Schenectady County are 74 times more likely to be arrested on a marijuana charge.

Decriminalization of marijuana, S.6579A, will:

•Decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana by reducing the penalty for unlawful possession of marijuana to a violation punishable by a fine.

•Establish procedures for automatic record expungement both retroactively and for future convictions. 

•Remove criminal penalties (since a violation is not a crime) for possession of any amount of marijuana under two ounces.

•Reduce the penalty to a $50 fine regardless of criminal history for possession under one ounce, and a $200 fine regardless of criminal history for possession between one and two ounces.

•Add marijuana to the definition of “smoking” under the Public Health Law so that smoking marijuana will be prohibited in any circumstances where smoking tobacco is prohibited by law.

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