More than 24,000 people get marijuana convictions expunged in New York

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Thousands of people in New York state will have their low-level marijuana offenses expunged under a marijuana decriminalization law that took effect on Wednesday (Aug. 27).

The law was for marijuana reformers after the state failed to pass cannabis legalization this year. Under the new law, possessing less than 2 ounces of marijuana is a violation punishable by a fine of $200 or less. Prior to this, it was a misdemeanor offense.

For decades, marijuana criminalization has had a harsh impact on people across the state whose records have been marked by low-level convictions related to the drug.

Advocates of criminal justice reform welcome the new law, many of whom say criminal penalties related to the drug fall disproportionately on black and Hispanic communities.

As part of the law, New Yorkers will automatically have low-level marijuana offenses expunged from their records, although the process could take up to a year, according to The New York Times.

The State Division of Criminal Justice Services estimated that about 24,000 people across New York will have their records cleared because of the new law, but the Drug Policy Alliance says that the number is likely to be much higher, since nearly 900,000 New Yorkers have been arrested for low-level marijuana offenses since 1990.

In addition to the thousands of records being wiped clean of convictions related to the drug, marijuana possession under two ounces will be considered a violation under the new law, instead of a criminal offence.

Fines have been also been capped at $200 for possession of between one and two ounces, while the fine for possessing less than one ounce has been lowered from $150 to $50.

A spokesperson for the Governor of New York, Andrew M. Cuomo, confirmed the state had begun the process of expunging the records.

Mr. Cuomo said in a statement:

For too long communities of color [sic] have been disproportionately impacted by laws governing marijuana and have suffered the lifelong consequences of an unfair marijuana conviction.

Today is the start of a new chapter in the criminal justice system. 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, we are giving many New Yorkers the opportunity to live better and more productive, successful and healthier lives.

This law is long overdue, and it is a significant step forward in our efforts to end this repressive cycle and ultimately mend our discriminatory criminal justice process once and for all.

David Soares, Albany County district attorney and former president of the District Attorneys Association of the State of New York, told the New York Post the fact that tens of thousands of people no longer having a criminal record is something which ‘has to be celebrated by everybody in the state of New York’.

Completely expunging the records, which has never been done in New York, could take up to a year. This is because a method for the process is still being developed, a spokesperson for the State Office of Court Administration, Lucian Chalfen, said.

Another 200,000 cases will also be eligible for the sealing of records; sealing the records would insure a person’s marijuana-related convictions would not show up in most background checks, state officials confirmed.

According to research conducted by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), marijuana arrests account for over half of all drug arrests in the United States. Of the 8.2 million marijuana-related arrests between 2001 and 2010, 88 per cent were for simply possessing marijuana – of any amount.

The ACLU’s analysis unearthed significant racial bias in that black people are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested because of marijuana than white people – despite roughly equal usage rates.

Figures released by the NYPD, as per Gothamist, show there were approximately 750 arrests for the misdemeanor in the first half of 2019, and 8,000 marijuana-related violations summonses. Around 90 per cent of those were for people of color.

The new decriminalization law, while a huge improvement, only came about after the state failed to fully legalize cannabis earlier this summer – something Governor Cuomo said was down to the senate not having enough votes to move forward with legalization at the end of the lawmaking session.

Because of this, the law still allows law enforcement officers to take accused violators into custody if they have no identification on them or if they are from out of state, Gothamist reports.

The automatic expungement of records has been praised by many people who point out that marijuana prosecutions disproportionately affect people of color.

“For too long communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by laws governing marijuana and have suffered the lifelong consequences of an unfair marijuana conviction,” New York Governor Andrew Cuomo said in a statement.

Having a clean record “gives people a new lease on life, removing the suffocating stain of stigma that prevents so many from reaching their highest potential,” said Khalil A. Cumberbatch, a social justice reform advocate who was pardoned by Cuomo in 2014 and now works as the chief strategist at New Yorkers United for Justice.

One of the bill’s co-sponsors, state senator Zellnor Myrie of Brooklyn, said that clearing records and decriminalizing marijuana is an important first step to correcting the damages done by the war on drugs.