Marijuana Decriminalization Approved in NY After Legalization Efforts Stall


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Sep 19, 2009
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Mariposa County CA
From New York Law Journal
Marijuana Decriminalization Approved in NY After Legalization Efforts Stall

Supporters of the bill described closed-door discussions on marijuana legalization as akin to trying to hit a moving target.

By Dan M. Clark | June 21, 2019
New York will not legalize marijuana for recreational, adult use this year, but state lawmakers approved a handful of reforms aimed at decriminalizing the drug to avoid leaving Albany for the year without any movement on the issue.

After negotiations on a broader measure to regulate and tax the drug stalled in recent days, lawmakers opted to pass legislation early Friday morning that will remove criminal charges for possessing small amounts of marijuana and allow for automatic expungement of past convictions.

It’s not what Democrats leading the charge for legalization wanted, as they were willing to hold out until a final deal on the legislation could be reached. But it was clear earlier this week that wasn’t going to happen by the end of the legislative session.

Supporters of the bill described closed-door discussions on marijuana legalization like trying to hit a moving target. When one lawmaker’s concerns were thought to be resolved, another would express their own worries over legalization.

Lawmakers ultimately determined that they didn’t have the votes to move forward with any measure that would have established a framework to regulate and tax the drug. Their attention turned instead to a much smaller measure that would reduce penalties for possessing small amounts of the drug and clear past convictions for low-level marijuana-related offenses.

Members of the State Assembly quickly coalesced around the idea. It was slower to gain support in the state Senate, but members there were ultimately convinced.

The bill passed in the Senate, 39 to 23, and later in the Assembly with a comfortable margin. It’s expected to be signed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, who said a statement earlier this week that he will sign the measure.

Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie, D-Bronx, said Thursday that the decriminalization measure will be a primer for next year’s negotiations around legalizing the drug, though those are likely to be just as tense, if not more so, given that it’s an election year for the Legislature.

“In government, people have to realize that sometimes you don’t get everything you want in the first shot,” Heastie said. “I do think on decriminalization, it will help undo some of the long-time injustices that communities have had, particularly communities of color.”

The legislation will make possession of small amounts of marijuana punishable by small fines and classify them as violations rather than crimes. The fine for possessing less than an ounce of the drug will be capped at $50, according to the bill. The fine for possessing between one and two ounces of marijuana, or marijuana-related substances, will not exceed $200.

The legislation will also allow automatic expungement of low-level marijuana convictions, such as possessing small amounts of the drug. Any record of those convictions with the state will be automatically expunged, or erased, according to the bill. Those convictions will not show up on any subsequent criminal history searches.

That change is intended to remove barriers that can sometimes make it difficult for past offenders to secure employment or housing. New York Attorney General Letitia James recently wrote to lawmakers urging them to include the provision in any final marijuana bill they pass this session. Criminal justice advocates have also pushed for expungement.

Sen. Jamaal Bailey, D-Bronx, sponsored the bill in the Senate, where it was introduced days earlier as an alternate plan for lawmakers to consider in the event that legalization didn’t pan out. He said the bill won’t diminish future plans to legalize the drug.

“When you’re talking about real equality, real equality means economic equality as well,” Bailey said. “It’s great to get the criminal justice aspect, and I’m glad we’re going to be taking a step in the right direction today. But to truly be able to impact the lives of disproportionately affected communities, we have to be able to reinvest in these communities that have been so decimated by this war on drugs.”

If the broader bill to legalize marijuana was the whole loaf lawmakers were looking for on the issue, the decriminalization bill could be considered a slice.

The larger measure, called the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, would have established a regulatory framework for growing, selling, and taxing marijuana in New York. Lawmakers were divided on where tax revenue from the drug should go, but many agreed that a portion of it should be diverted to communities impacted by the state’s drug laws.

It also would have expanded the state’s medical marijuana and hemp industries. A standalone bill addressing the state’s medical marijuana laws failed to move in the end, but legislation to regulate the hemp industry was able to pass. The measure establishes licensing standards and requires lab testing and labeling for products, such as cannabidiol, or CBD.

Democrats had an array of concerns over the omnibus bill, some of which had to do with road safety. There’s currently no quick and easy way to measure someone’s intoxication from marijuana, so some Democrats feared that enforcing the state’s laws on driving while intoxicated would be difficult. Few officers in the state are trained to recognize and verify drug intoxication.

There was also a disagreement over the revenue that would have been generated from marijuana sales. Supporters of the bill wanted those funds to be reinvested in communities disparately impacted by the state’s drug laws. Others wanted to use the money in other ways, like to fund the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, or invest in infrastructure.

In the end, Democrats in the Senate couldn’t get the votes on a final version of the bill pitched behind closed doors on Tuesday. The bill was sponsored by Sen. Liz Krueger, D-Manhattan, and Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo. Both have vowed to continue their efforts next year.

Advocates who supported the legalization bill scrambled in the final days of this year’s legislative session to convince lawmakers that the decriminalization bill would slow future efforts on the issue. Members of the Senate initially failed to commit to the bill but came around when it was clear that they would have to either approve that legislation, or nothing at all this year.


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