By Victoria Merlino
After a frantic last push to legalize marijuana in New York failed during the last days of the legislative session, Albany lawmakers settled for what they are calling decriminalization — a law that could bring substantial change to law enforcement efforts in Queens, which leads the boroughs in low-level marijuana possession cases.
The bill reduces the penalty for possession of less than two ounces of marijuana from a misdemeanor to a violation punishable by a fine, and would expunge past low-level marijuana convictions from records. Possession under one ounce will now result in a $50 fine, while possession between one and two ounces will mean a $200 fine.
“In New York State, people of color are disproportionately arrested for marijuana possession,” said State Sen. Jamaal Bailey, the bill’s sponsor, in a statement. “The misdemeanor charge for public view of marijuana possession gives those people convicted a criminal record that will follow them throughout their lives, potentially limiting their access to housing, access to education, affecting their ability to obtain employment, all leading to a potential inability to provide for their families.”
New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services data found that almost everyone busted for low-level marijuana possession in New York City over the year’s first three months were black or Latinx, as previously reported by the Eagle. A study from CUNY John Jay College this year also found that black and Hispanic people “consistently” had higher rates of misdemeanor marijuana arrests compared to whites.
The measure could affect nearly 600,000 New Yorkers with arrest records for low-level marijuana possession, according to Bailey’s sponsor memo, which accompanies the bill.
“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,” Bailey continued in his statement.
Advocates worry that the legislation does not go far enough.
“This legislation we don’t think is going to be significant in terms of on-the-ground practices,” Police Reform Organizing Project Robert Gangi told the Eagle.
Though overall arrests and convictions for marijuana possession have drastically decreased compared to previous years, racial disparities have actually gone up. People of color account for more than 90 percent of people arrested for low-level marijuana offenses in the first three months of the year according to NYPD data published by the state.
“As long as the police are involved in punishing people, we don’t consider that decriminalization,” Gangi said, adding that, without full legalization, discrimation against black and brown people will continue.
Kassandra Frederique, New York state director for the advocacy group Drug Policy Alliance, also said the state’s inability to pass full legalization will hurt communities of color.
“The inability of the state legislature and Gov. Cuomo to pass comprehensive marijuana legalization means that Black and Latinx individuals remain disproportionately in the crosshairs of harmful marijuana enforcement,” Frederique said. “Decriminalization alone is not enough to deal with the full impact of marijuana prohibition and just gives law enforcement discretion.”
Queens Assemblymembers Ron Kim, David Weprin, Catalina Cruz, Michele Titus, Andrew Hevesi and Vivian Cook all signed on as co-sponsors. No Queens state senators co-sponsored the bill.
The full legalization bill never made it to the floor of the State Senate, and a few Democratic senators, including Queens State Sen. Toby Ann Stavisky, remained holdouts against. Stavisky’s campaign told the Eagle she did not support the measure.
She also spoke with Gothamist about her opposition.
"The question of driving under the influence troubled me," she told Gothamist. "I wasn't pleased with allowing the homegrown six plants. I wasn't pleased with how they were going to distribute the revenue."
Though the fate of full legalization is unclear, Gov. Andrew Cuomo called the current bill a “major accomplishment.”
The district attorneys in Manhattan and Brooklyn have already elected not to prosecute low-level marijuana offenses, and each Democratic candidate in the crowded Queens District Attorney race have said that they would follow suit.