New York state legislators agreed to further decriminalize possession of marijuana and automatically expunge many low-level marijuana convictions across the state, but stopped short of legalization.
The measure, which would treat possession of up to two ounces of marijuana as a violation instead of a crime, is a significant change in a state where tens of thousands of residents have been arrested for small-scale possession. The agreement came after months of negotiations failed to establish the type of full legalization embraced in nearly a dozen other states, including California, Washington and Alaska, reports the New York Times and other news outlets.
Advocates of the bill immediately claimed the setback was “not the end of the road.”
“It is only a delay,” said State Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), in a statement reported by amNY
“Unfortunately, the delay means countless more New Yorkers will have their lives upended by unnecessary and racially disparate enforcement before we inevitably legalize.”
The measure agreed Thursday and backed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo was still considered a step forward for those pushing for lessening drug penalties, particularly the expungement of records.
Cuomo — who as recently as 2017 had called marijuana “a gateway drug” — praised the decriminalization bill, saying it would make a difference for many ensnared in the criminal justice system as a result of marijuana.
“It does a lot, makes a major change,” Cuomo said. “It makes the situation much better especially for the black and brown community that has paid such a high price.”
New York decriminalized small amounts of the drug in 1977, up to 25 grams, or nearly an ounce. The new bill will treat possession of less than one ounce as a violation subject to a $50 fine; possession of between one to two ounces, currently a Class B misdemeanor, will become a violation punishable by up to a $200 fine.
More than two ounces would still be considered a crime.
Illinois is poised to become the 11th state to legalize recrfeational marijuana when Gov. J.B. Pritzker signs a recently passed bill. The Illinois legislation would also automatically expunge criminal records of people convicted of minor pot possession. Another 23 states permit pot for medicinal uses.
The House Financial Services Committee has passed legislation that would let banks provide services to legal marijuana businesses. Public opinion has shifted as well.More than 6 in 10 adults favor legalization, says the Pew Research Center, double the level at the turn of the century.
Political observers call the issue a “litmus test” for the 2020 political campaign.