The law was the consolation prize for marijuana reformers after the state failed to pass cannabis legalization this year. Under the new law, possessing less than 2 ounces of marijuana is a violation punishable by a fine of $200 or less. Prior to this, it was a misdemeanor offense.
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As part of the new law, New Yorkers will automatically have low-level marijuana offenses expunged from their records, although the process could take up to a year, according to The New York Times.
The State Division of Criminal Justice Services estimated that about 24,000 people across New York will have their records cleared because of the new law, but the Drug Policy Alliance says that the number is likely to be much higher, since nearly 900,000 New Yorkers have been arrested for low-level marijuana offenses since 1990.
The automatic expunging of records has been praised by many people who point out that marijuana prosecutions disproportionately affect people of color.
“For too long communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by laws governing marijuana and have suffered the lifelong consequences of an unfair marijuana conviction,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement.
Having a clean record “gives people a new lease on life, removing the suffocating stain of stigma that prevents so many from reaching their highest potential,” said Khalil A. Cumberbatch, a social justice reform advocate who was pardoned by Cuomo in 2014 and now works as the chief strategist at New Yorkers United for Justice.
One of the bill’s co-sponsors, state senator Zellnor Myrie of Brooklyn, said that clearing records and decriminalizing marijuana is an important first step to correcting the damages done by the war on drugs.
“I represent Brownsville; that was ground zero for a lot of this,” he said. “[This] is just the beginning of the state recognizing the errors of that war.”
Even those who are not in favor of marijuana legalization applauded the measure. Kevin Sabet, director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an advocacy group that opposes legalization, said that marijuana use should be seen in a similar fashion to speeding.
“It’s something discouraged, but it’s not something that is going to destroy your life if you’re caught doing it,” he said.
He continued, “We don’t want people in prison for marijuana use, but the criminal sanctions on marijuana is not a reason to commercialize and normalize marijuana.”