New York State decriminalized the recreational use of marijuana, stopping short of full legalization. Governor Andrew Cuomo signed the bill July 29, which is a step short of his promise to fully legalize recreational use. However, the new law will begin efforts to clear people’s legal records for small possession charges. The law will go into effect on August 28, 2019.

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This makes New York the 14th state in America to currently have marijuana decriminalized, while another 11 and Washington D.C. have full recreational legalization in place. \

“By providing individuals who have suffered the consequences of an unfair marijuana conviction with a path to have their records expunged and by reducing draconian penalties, we are taking a critical step forward in addressing a broken and discriminatory criminal justice process,” said Cuomo.

Data from the Federal Bureau of Investigation shows that 360,000 people were arrested for possession of marijuana in the state of New York from 2008 to 2017. According to New York’s Division of Criminal Justice Services, at least 24,400 people will have their records expunged while more than 200,000 convictions for low-level marijuana offenses will be sealed.

As of Aug. 28, the possession of under one ounce of cannabis will result in a $50 fine, statewide, or a maximum penalty of $200 for possession of one to two ounces. Cuomo, who is in his third term as governor, was previously against marijuana until late last year, when he said legalization would be one of his top priorities going into his next term.

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Many believe that his change of tune is due to the expected $1.7 to $3.5 billion dollars in annual revenue that the state is expected to earn with the legalization, which could go toward helping fix the broken subway system that is plaguing residents.

Campaigns for legalization marijuana have been going on for decades, as many advocates point to lower-income communities and people of color being disproportionately affected by the prohibition laws. Many believe that this is the right step for the state, however, it is not a big enough step.

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Seedlings of cannabis on the windowsill and cactus iStock / NataGolubnycha
While the decriminalization efforts will help some, a great deal of those who have suffered will not gain from this advancement.

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Speaking to Forbes, Deputy Director for the New York Drug Policy Alliance, Melissa Moore says, “This bill fails to address the collateral damages of prohibition, including affected individuals’ access to employment and housing, as well as address family separations, immigration rights, and other avenues to economic security. Given the extensive, life-changing inequities created by discriminatory and draconian enforcement policies, true justice requires the allocation of tax revenue to community reinvestment programs for impacted communities. We are incredibly proud of our communities and supporters for generating the momentum necessary to force legislators to pass a law authorizing automatic expungement.”

Expungement is considered just one of the necessary steps that lawmakers will need to address if they wish to make their marijuana wrongs right.  There are over 46,000 collateral consequences that a person can face at the federal or state level after they are convicted of a crime, including problems gaining employment, housing or assistance from the government.

The decriminalization bill stops short of fully helping people with the collateral consequences, with the Forbes article pointing out a man with two American born children on an I.C.E. removal list for a small possession charge he got nearly 20 years ago.  Moore continued that by not fully legalizing cannabis, that communities of color are still at risk of being unfairly prosecuted.

“Decriminalization alone is not enough to deal with the full impact of marijuana prohibition and gives law enforcement discretion,” Moore said.

“Addressing the legacy of harm from prohibition and targeted enforcement by comprehensively legalizing and reinvesting in communities is what policymakers need to deliver on. While it is disappointing that our leaders have once again failed to prioritize racial justice in New York, we will continue to fight on behalf of comprehensive reforms.”

A Government That Can't Decide

crime rates in legal states While many are hopeful that the future of marijuana will head in the right direction, lawmakers in the state haven’t come to a decision. The current bill signed is believed to be a compromise between members of the New York government who want to undo the problems of prohibition and those who oppose having marijuana in the market.

While both chambers and the governor of New York are democrats, there are still many moderates who oppose legalization. This isn’t the first time marijuana has been decriminalized in the state, with a 1977 bill allowing for up to 25 grams of cannabis on a person being subject to a fine rather than jail time.

However, a loophole was put in place stating that if people were caught in public with it they can be subject to jail time. This loophole is believed to be subject to people of color, who have vastly higher rates of jail time compared to white people.

In 2015, 88 percent of the 16,590 people arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana in New York City were black or Latino.

This new bill not only removes this loophole but doubles the number of cannabis people can have on them up to 57 grams while receiving a fine. The fines also went down from $500 to $200.

"The legacy of issues that have hit black, brown and poor people as a result of marijuana prohibition is more wide-ranging than any decriminalization bill could ever remotely come close to addressing," Jawanza James Williams, director of organizing at VOCAL-NY, a nonprofit dedicated to social justice, told TimesUnion. Williams not only considers the bill to be “an abject failure,” but that much more work will be needed in the long run.