Many New York residents breathed a sigh of relief at the end of August.
Last week, a new law expunging low-level marijuana offenses from New Yorkers’ records went into effect offering a path for thousands to access better jobs and housing. The expunging of these offenses could affect over 900,000 New Yorkers.
New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo said this legislation would help all of New Yorkers, but in particular Black and Brown New Yorkers.
“For too long communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by laws governing marijuana and have suffered the life-long consequences of an unfair marijuana conviction,” stated Cuomo. “Today is the start of a new chapter in the criminal justice system. By providing individuals a path to have their records expunged, including those who have been unjustly impacted based on their race or ethnicity, and reducing the penalty for unlawful possession of marijuana to a fine, we are giving many New Yorkers the opportunity to live better and more productive, successful and healthier lives.”
Cuomo signed the legislation in late July, but some feel that the state government needs to push further with its marijuana policy.
“The reality is that while marijuana has been effectively ‘legal’ for white New Yorkers for decades, Black and Latinx people continue to be arrested and incarcerated for marijuana offenses at vastly disproportionate rates—despite research showing that consumption and sale of marijuana is the same regardless of race,” said Zakiyah Ansari, of Alliance for Quality Education, to the AmNews.
Under the new law, instead of an arrest, possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana carries at $50 fine and 2 ounces a $200 fine. Up to 8 ounces warrants a fine of $1,000, a misdemeanor and a year in jail. Between 8 ounces and a pound would net a $5,000 fine, a felony charge and four years in jail.
Black and Latinx New Yorkers are more likely to be accosted or arrested by cops for marijuana possession. According to a study from the Mayor’s Office of Criminal Justice, through Nov. 23 of 2018, 89 percent of all New Yorkers arrested for smoking marijuana were either Black or Latinx. Only seven percent were white. A report from Start SMART New York showed that, based on data from the New York State Division of Criminal Services from 2010 to 2018, 81 percent of people arrested for low-level marijuana possession in the city of Rochester were Black despite comparable numbers of Black and white residents living in the city and government reports showing that white people and Black people use marijuana at similar rates.
A recent report by the news site The City showed that Staten Island’s 120th Precinct (the precinct that covers the street where Eric Garner was killed) has one of the highest number of arrests for marijuana possession in New York City this year. Through June 2019, the precinct recorded 35 marijuana arrests.
Despite all of this, an organization led by two formerly incarcerated individuals praised the expunging of records and Gov. Cuomo for helping shepherd it through.
“For nearly 1 million New Yorkers, marijuana expungement represents a new lease on life, removing the suffocating stain of stigma that prevents so many from reaching their highest potential,” said Khalil A. Cumberbatch, of New Yorkers United for Justice, in a statement. “This is particularly true for people of color who are nearly four times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite similar rates of usage.
“Even as we celebrate the significant progress made so far this year, we can’t forget our obligations to millions of New Yorkers still waiting for their chance at redemption,” added Topeka K. Sam, also of NYUJ. “For too many New Yorkers, second chances remain far too rare.”
But decriminalization and expungement isn’t enough for some. Melissa Moore, the New York State deputy director of the Drug Policy Alliance, said that New York technically decriminalized marijuana back in 1977, but that didn’t stop Black and Latinx New Yorkers from being locked up by the authorities over it.
“The inability of the state Legislature and Governor Cuomo to pass comprehensive marijuana legalization means that Black and Latinx individuals remain disproportionately in the crosshairs of harmful marijuana enforcement,” stated Moore to the AmNews. “Decriminalization alone is not enough to deal with the full impact of marijuana prohibition and just gives law enforcement discretion. 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,” concluded Moore.
Emma Goodman, a staff attorney with the Criminal Defense Practice’s Special Litigation Unit at The Legal Aid Society, agreed with Moore stating that the legislation isn’t a step forward because it doesn’t address the disparate enforcement of marijuana possession in Black and Latinx communities when compared to white ones.
“Under this statute, for basic marijuana possession, our clients will continue to face parole and probation violations, continue to live in fear of immigration detention and deportation, and continue to be at risk of being separated from their family by an adult or child protective agency,” stated Goodman. “All of the collateral consequences of marijuana criminalization that harm communities of color will continue to exist.
“We hope that next year Albany finally enacts the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, legislation that will address these historic problems that continue to plague our clients and other New Yorkers of color on a daily basis,” concluded Goodman.