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Marijuana decriminalization law takes effect

Karen DeWitt
WRVO News (file photo)
Advocates for legalizing marijuana demonstrated at the state Capitol during the legislative session earlier in 2019

A law that decriminalizes possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana took effect Wednesday. Gov. Andrew Cuomo said it's "long overdue." But some advocates say the law does not go far enough.

Starting Wednesday, possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana is punishable by a $50 fine. Anyone caught with 2 ounces of cannabis would be fined up to $200. The measure also creates a mechanism to expunge the records for some past marijuana convictions.

Cuomo said in a statement that it's the "start of a new chapter in the criminal justice system." He also said it will help communities of color that have been "disproportionately impacted" by the state's marijuana laws over the past several decades.

Melissa Moore with the Drug Policy Alliance said expunging past criminal records for marijuana possession is a "significant" step forward.

"It should provide a measure of relief for hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers who were unjustly caught up in the criminal legal system," said Moore, "because of biased and targeted enforcement of prohibition."

The state's Department of Criminal Justice Services, or DCJS, will spend the next several months setting up the expungement program.

But Moore said the further decriminalization of cannabis "falls short" and may not result in fewer arrests and punishments for African American, Latinx and low-income New Yorkers, who have been disproportionately targeted by law enforcement.

She said New York City adopted a policy in 2014 to stop arresting people for low-level marijuana possession. Moore said 2018 data from DCJS shows the number of arrests decreased, but people of color were still disproportionately arrested more frequently.

"In more well-to-do areas, we saw a continued drop in arrests," said Moore.

She said the data shows "nearly every single person" who was arrested in New York City during that time for low-level marijuana possession was a person of color.

"We know that people use at roughly similar rates across different racial and ethnic groups," Moore said. "So that extreme disparity is one that continues to be absolutely unacceptable."

Under the new decriminalization law, a person can still be arrested for possession of the drug, even if it ultimately results in just a fine. People possessing 2 ounces or less of cannabis also can have their children removed from their home, and if they are undocumented immigrants, they could face deportation.

The Drug Policy Alliance and other groups believe that the only way to change that is to legalize recreational use of the drug, and closely regulate it.

A bill to legalize adult recreational use of marijuana did not gain enough votes in the state Senate to pass before the legislative session ended in June. Advocates say they will press for the measure in 2020.

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.