A New York State law decriminalising marijuana took effect yesterday, with more than 24,000 people having their records wiped clean of marijuana convictions.
For decades, marijuana criminalisation has impacted people across the state whose records have been marked by low-level convictions related to the drug.
This new state law has been welcomed by advocates of criminal justice reform, many of whom say criminal penalties related to the drug fall disproportionately on black and Hispanic communities.
Under the new law – which was passed in June but took effect yesterday – 10,872 people in New York City will automatically have their records wiped clean of marijuana convictions, The New York Times reports.
A further 13,357 people across the rest of the state will also see these convictions cleared from their records – a total of 24,229 across the state – a spokesperson for the State Division of Criminal Justice Services said.
In addition to the thousands of records being wiped clean of convictions related to the drug, marijuana possession under two ounces will be considered a violation under the new law, instead of a criminal offence.
Fines have been also been capped at $200 for possession of between one and two ounces, while the fine for possessing less than one ounce has been lowered from $150 to $50.
Yesterday, a spokesperson for the Governor of New York, Andrew M. Cuomo, confirmed the state had begun the process of expunging the records.
Mr. Cuomo said in a statement:
For too long communities of color [sic] have been disproportionately impacted by laws governing marijuana and have suffered the lifelong consequences of an unfair marijuana conviction.
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.
This law is long overdue, and it is a significant step forward in our efforts to end this repressive cycle and ultimately mend our discriminatory criminal justice process once and for all.
David Soares, Albany County district attorney and former president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, told the New York Post the fact that tens of thousands of people no longer having a criminal record is something which ‘has to be celebrated by everybody in the state of New York’.
Completely expunging the records, which has never been done in New York, could take up to a year. This is because a method for the process is still being developed, a spokesperson for the State Office of Court Administration, Lucian Chalfen, said.
Another 200,000 cases will also be eligible for the sealing of records; sealing the records would insure a person’s marijuana-related convictions would not show up in most background checks, state officials confirmed.
According to research conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), marijuana arrests account for over half of all drug arrests in the United States. Of the 8.2 million marijuana-related arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88 per cent were for simply possessing marijuana – of any amount.
As of today, marijuana laws in New York State have changed.
It is still illegal to posses any amount of marijuana.
We encourage all New Yorkers to know and understand the law. Watch below for the specific policy changes. ⬇️ pic.twitter.com/AWqO1vnhPm
— NYPD NEWS (@NYPDnews) August 28, 2019
Not only that, but ACLU’s analysis unearthed significant racial bias in that black people are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested because of marijuana than white people – despite roughly equal usage rates.
Figures released by the NYPD, as per Gothamist, show there were approximately 750 arrests for the misdemeanor in the first half of 2019, and 8,000 marijuana-related violations summonses. Around 90 per cent of those were for people of colour.
The new decriminalisation law, while a huge improvement, only came about after the state failed to fully legalise cannabis earlier this summer – something Governor Cuomo said was down to the senate not having enough votes to move forward with legalisation at the end of the lawmaking session.
Because of this, the law still allows law enforcement officers to take accused violators into custody if they have no identification on them or if they are from out of state, Gothamist reports.
And while possessing less than two ounces of marijuana is no longer a criminal offence, selling any amount of the drug remains a felony crime.
Although 22 states have decriminalised the use of marijuana – including New York – only 13 have legalised it. A further 35 allow medical use of marijuana.
If you have a story you want to tell send it to UNILAD via [email protected]
A Broadcast Journalism Masters graduate who went on to achieve an NCTJ level 3 Diploma in Journalism, Lucy has done stints at ITV, BBC Inside Out and Key 103. While working as a journalist for UNILAD, Lucy has reported on breaking news stories while also writing features about mental health, cervical screening awareness, and Little Mix (who she is unapologetically obsessed with).