[dropcap class=”kp-dropcap”]W[/dropcap]hile a recent effort to legalize recreational cannabis in New York failed, decriminalization did not. On July 29, Gov. Andrew Cuomo signed Senate Bill S6579A and Assembly Bill A840A, which eliminate criminal penalties for the possession of cannabis in New York state.
Adult New Yorkers who are caught with two ounces of cannabis or less will merely face a small fine instead of possible jail time and harsher penalties. To keep things fair, people who have low-level cannabis convictions in the past will have their records expunged.
Gov. Cuomo brought up the great need for addressing how communities of color received the brunt of the negative impact of the War on Drugs. “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,” Gov Cuomo said in a prepared statement on his website. “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.”
New York actually decriminalized cannabis to an extent in 1977. The old law redefined possession of less than 23 grams to a violation—the equivalent of a ticket. But the 1977 law only applied for cannabis in private places, and it reduced fines to $100 for under two ounces and for the first offense. But under the old law, public possession still could lead to time in jail.
The new laws greatly expand the state’s decriminalization efforts. The new law reduces fines further to $50 for an ounce or less and no escalation of fines. The new bill also discards the distinction between public and private places. It also paves the way for removing cannabis-related low-level criminal records that were a stain on the record of many New Yorkers. Automatic expungement means that residents won’t have to file complicated paperwork to clear their records. Even Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), which normally fights legalization bills, agreed that cannabis conviction records shouldn’t prevent someone from getting a job.
Removing penalties for cannabis with permanent effects is one of the ways that New York is updating its laws to reflect the will of the people.