Business as Usual in New York, Cannabis Continues to be Decriminalized
This “decriminalization” bill that is currently waiting for the Governor to sign into law, does nothing to end arrests for cannabis possession. Instead, the bill reduces penalties for public use and burning to a violation that can still ultimately lead to arrest. Cannabis was decriminalized by New York in 1977, and yet millions of people have been arrested since then and we became the cannabis arrest capital of the country.
New York – The New York State Senate and Assembly passed legislation (S.6579A/A.8420A), to continue decriminalizing cannabis in our state. The bill lowers the fines associated with possessing small amounts of cannabis, under 2 ounces, to be up to $200. This bill also introduces a retroactive expungement mechanism into our criminal justice system, potentially affecting hundreds of thousands.
Expunging the records of thousands of New Yorkers is good news for some, but it does so in a way that places the livelihood and status of immigrants at risk and imposes burdensome restrictions on affected individuals. Moreover, the proposed bill does not address the collateral damage done to individuals and families in the areas of child welfare, housing, employment, professional licensing, higher education, and benefits for individuals who have been previously arrested for possession.
Bill sponsors of the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (“MRTA”), Senator Krueger and Assembly Majority Leader Peoples-Stokes along with advocates, fought with vigor this legislative session to establish a legal adult-use industry in New York. The MRTA would not only have been a huge victory for our movement in New York by including personal cultivation, it would also include day one equity, as well as encouraging small and diverse business ownership. In addition, it would have also been a monumental win for social justice advocates all over the country by ending the racial injustices and archaic system of control instituted by the war on drugs, and most importantly setting aside dedicated community reinvestment funding to the communities affected by “decriminalization ” enforcement.
However, Governor Cuomo along with Senator Kevin Thomas, Senator Monica Martinez, Senator John Brooks, Senator Todd Kaminsky, Senator Anna Kaplan, Senator Roxanne Persaud, Senator Shelly Mayer, Senator Jim Gaughran and Senator Toby Ann Stavisky decided not to prioritize provisions that were necessary to end and correct New York’s long history of discriminatory arrests for marijuana prohibition. Having campaigned on progressive platforms, some of which included legalization, these Democrats betrayed their constituency and the rest of their conference who all were in alignment on this issue.
Even after various county District Attorneys ended prosecutions for marijuana possession, law enforcement officers in their jurisdiction continued to make arrests. More than 900,000 New Yorkers’ have been arrested for marijuana possession since 2000, and over 80% of those arrested have been Black or Latinx. There is nothing in the proposed decriminalization bill that suggests this practice will end.
Decriminalization is nothing new, and after nearly half a century of “Decriminalization” we need new and innovative ideas to deal with the problems of past racism and greed. But actually addressing the legacy of harm from prohibition and targeted enforcement, and providing a pathway forward to a more equitable future, are what require meaningful and decisive leadership. Our legislators and Governor Cuomo have failed in that regard, and have sent a message to New Yorkers that racial and economic justice are not priorities for them.
Comprehensive reform would have been an enormous economic driver for struggling communities across the state. But in a moment when they had a clear avenue for building up marginalized communities, they chose not to act. Instead, Governor Cuomo and legislators have attempted to sell us on half-measures that will continue to jeopardize countless lives and futures, and perpetuate injustices. They must be held accountable, and cannot use a so-called decriminalization bill as political cover for their inaction. By passing the decriminalization bill instead of the MRTA, these legislators failed at their jobs by failing to successfully legislate and protect all New Yorkers.