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New York law further decriminalizes marijuana possession


Gov. Andrew Cuomo on Monday signed a bill into law that further decriminalizes marijuana possession in New York state. The law ends criminal prosecution for possession of up to 2 ounces of cannabis.

The action comes on a day when the governor also signed new gun control measures into law. 

Under the law, possession of up to 1 ounce of the drug would be punishable by a $50 fine. Having up to 2 ounces of cannabis would bring a $200 fine. The measure also creates a mechanism to expunge the records for some past marijuana convictions.

"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," Cuomo said in a statement.

Emma Goodman with the Legal Aid Society of New York said the measure is a step forward to helping communities of color that have been disproportionately targeted by the state's marijuana laws, but it falls short.

"I don't think it's going to make a big enough difference," Goodman said. "I do think that people who have been harmed by the era of broken windows policing will be somewhat affected by it in a positive way, because there are people who have a bunch of low-level marijuana convictions that they won't have any more." 

Melissa Moore with the Drug Policy Alliance said the new law does not go far enough to address what she said are the "collateral consequences" of decades of marijuana criminalization that adversely affect African American and Latinx communities. And she said the new law does not prohibit police from making arrests if they catch someone possessing marijuana.

"They can continue to face parole and probation violations for marijuana, they can keep being separated from their children," Moore said. "And people can still continue to face immigration consequences from marijuana arrests, which is a huge concern in this moment."

The Drug Policy Alliance, Legal Aid Society and other advocates said they will continue to press lawmakers to legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana. They were unable to get enough votes in the state Senate for passage.

But Moore said polls show support among New Yorkers for legalization and she hopes to have more success in the 2020 legislative session.  

"It's an incredibly popular issue across the state," said Moore, who added there is support even in districts where majority party Democratic legislators might face a close re-election next year.  

"People who were likely 2020 voters in those districts were actually more likely to support a candidate that had supported marijuana regulation," Moore said. "So absolutely, we will be back."  

Cuomo also signed gun control measures approved by the Legislature last January. One requires a 30-day waiting period for a gun sale if the purchaser is flagged in an initial background check. 

The Senate sponsor of the measure, Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, spoke on the floor when the bill was passed. 

"The FBI itself says on average it takes about 20 to 25 days for a background check that has been flagged to be completed," Gianaris said. "This is the most common sense of common sense proposals." 

Another measure outlaws the possession and transport of so-called bump stocks, devices that further accelerate the speed of semi-automatic weapons. They have been used in prior mass shootings. 

The action comes one day after a shooting at a California food festival that killed three people, including a 6-year-old boy and a 13-year-old girl.

Karen DeWitt is Capitol Bureau Chief for New York State Public Radio, a network of 10 public radio stations in New York State. She has covered state government and politics for the network since 1990.