A new law to decriminalize the use of marijuana took effect Aug. 30.
Under the new law, thousands of people with low-level marijuana convictions will automatically have their records expunged of crimes involving the possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana.
That means the arrest records of nearly 14,000 people in New York City and 11,000 in the rest of the state will be erased, according to the New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services.
Also under the new law, possessing 2 ounces or less is now a violation, not a crime, with a penalty of $50 for possessing less than an ounce, or a maximum of $200 for 1 to 2 ounces.
What’s more, smoking marijuana in public is no longer a misdemeanor punishable by jail time, rather, it’s a mere violation, a fine-only offense, like a traffic ticket. (“Smoking” is defined as the burning of a lighted cigar, cigarette, pipe or any other matter or substance, which contains tobacco or marijuana.)
It’s still illegal in New York to sell or grow cannabis, however.
And while the state fell short in its efforts to legalize marijuana earlier this year, this new law is a good first step, and one that is long overdue, toward mending a key injustice in our criminal justice system that has disproportionately impacted communities of color with arrests for marijuana use or possession. In New York City, 86% of the people arrested for marijuana possession in the fifth degree (that is, possessing more than 25 grams but less than 2 ounces) during 2017 were people of color, and only 9% were white, according to state records.
“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, thousands of New Yorkers will be able to live better and more productive, successful and healthier lives,” Gov. Andrew Cuomo said when the law took effect.
It’s about time the state took action to turn the penalties for pot use into financial ones rather than putting people behind bars.
But decriminalization raises other concerns in communities like ours.
How to deal with stoned drivers? What steps would be taken to ensure that underage kids don’t smoke weed? Those are questions educators, concerned parents and law enforcement officials, not to mention the Drug and Alcohol Task Force, will have to grapple with going forward.