New York Moves To Decriminalize Cannabis

In July of this year, New York lawmakers voted on a major piece of legislation to further decriminalize marijuana across the state.  The bill was the result of a series of debates in Albany surrounding the full legalization of recreational cannabis.

The legalization initiative, put forth by State Senator Liz Krueger and Assembly Majority Leader Crystal People-Stokes, ultimately fell through after both sides failed to reach an agreement on a number of key issues.  However, despite the apparent failure, decriminalization was reached as a compromise.  The bill went into effect on Wednesday August 28th, and will have a profound impact on how drug offenses are treated in the state.

While the move is no doubt welcome, and a step in the right direction, cannabis advocates are quick to point out that more needs to be done in a part of the country that many argue is falling behind as a number of states move rapidly closer to legalization.

Here’s everything you need to know about the new legislation.

New York Cannabis Law Before The Bill

Image Credit: Moheen Reeyad

This isn’t the first time New York has made moves to liberalize pot.  As of 2014, the state is one of 33 which permits medical marijuana in the US.

This also isn’t the first time in New York’s history that they’ve moved to decriminalize.  In 1977, laws were passed to make possession of small amounts (up to 25 grams) technically an infraction rather than a criminal offense.  Possession of larger amounts and “public use” was also downgraded to a Class B misdemeanor.

It’s important to point out that, as is the case in much of the country, attitudes and leniency towards cannabis have been changing far faster than official legislation.  In 2018, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio instructed city police to stop arresting people for smoking in public (still technically illegal under New York law).

However, last month’s bill is unique in that the scope of its impact goes much further than previous efforts.

The Details Of The Bill

New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo

Under the new law, all cases of possession under 2 ounces (about 56 grams) will no longer be treated as a misdemeanor, and will instead qualify as a violation, with a maximum fine of $200 (fines for smaller amounts were also reduced from $150 to $50).

The bill has the power to not only dramatically shrink drug related arrests, but also to retroactively expunge the records of those previously convicted of minor marijuana offenses.  All told, the State Division of Criminal Justice Services estimates that a whopping 160,000 New York residents will have records of their cannabis related convictions wiped out.

The move is long overdue – research has shown that visible minorities and people of color have been disproportionately affected by the war on drugs.  In an official statement, Governor Andrew Cuomo is quoted as saying “by providing individuals who have suffered the consequences of an unfair marijuana conviction with a path to have their records expunged and by reducing draconian penalties, we are taking a critical step forward in addressing a broken and discriminatory criminal justice process”.

Does The Bill Go Far Enough?

Image Credit: Thomas Geider

While most would concede that the new bill represents significant progress, many cannabis advocates argue that it could (and should) have gone much further.

As both these advocates and the governor have pointed out, minorities bear much of the burden when it comes to arrests – a 2017 study by John Jay College concluded that while misdemeanor arrests have gone down in New York, the disparity in arrest rates between whites and non-whites has persisted and even widened in some cases.

The expungement of over 160, 000 records will no doubt have a profoundly positive impact on the lives of those living with drug charges.  But with that said, many argue that there are still a number of problems with the way the laws are disproportionately enforced in the state.  Cannabis is still illegal, and while arrest rates are no doubt likely to fall, fines for possession can be a significant financial burden, particularly among those in communities more likely to be targeted by law enforcement.

What This Means For Legalization Efforts

Image Credit: Thomas Good

While pro-cannabis lawmakers may have been unable to push ahead with full scale legalization, the fact that they were able to negotiate such a dramatic decriminalization is both a sign of the times and a victory that has left advocates emboldened.

In an official statement in June, State Senator Liz Krueger, one of the sponsors of the marijuana legalization bill, appeared undeterred, saying “I will continue to push for a tax-and-regulate adult-use program with all the right safeguards in place, one that centers on restorative justice and reinvestment in the communities most harmed by decades of failed prohibition policies.”

Both Krueger and Assembly Majority Leader Crystal People-Stokes have vowed to push ahead with reviving the bill during the next legislative session.

What This Means For The Cannabis Industry

With a population of nearly 20 million, the state of New York obviously represents a huge chunk of potential consumers for the recreational cannabis industry.  If they do indeed go through with a full legalization program in the near future, it could not only become a major source of revenue, but also a potential source of job creation in what is essentially a new industry.

Decriminalization could also bode well for neighboring jurisdictions with recreational cannabis programs, since it may be enough to persuade those living near the border to make the trip.  This includes Vermont, Massachusetts and even potentially (thanks to its proximity to upstate New York) southern Ontario in Canada.

As for the medical marijuana industry, the failure of pro-cannabis lawmakers to push through full legalization could potentially be a blessing in disguise, since they no longer have to worry about competing on price with recreational pot.

Regardless of what happens in the interim, all eyes will no doubt be on New York during the next legislative session as the nation’s fourth most populous state inches closer and closer to legalization.