A bill recently proposed in New York could decriminalize cannabis and lead to the expungement of over 300,000 criminal records. New York state legislators have been debating the issue of recreational cannabis for the last several months.

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Just last week, lawmakers finally called the issue to a vote. The bill, A-08420, decriminalizes cannabis in New York.

Once passed, the amendment to current law will lower the penalty for being caught with under two ounces of marijuana to a $50 fine, and automatically expunge over 300,000 possession records.

The legislation passed the State Senate with a vote of 39-23 on Thursday evening; the New York Assembly met Friday morning and approved the measure.

New York State Capitol Building iStock / Cheri Alguire

Communities Ravaged By Current Drug Laws

A statement made by Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie read, “The drug laws that are currently on the books have devastated our communities by disproportionately targeting people of color, forcing them to live with a criminal record that makes it harder to get a job or find housing. Decriminalizing marijuana, paired with expunging records for these low-level offenses, will help undo some of these decades-long injustices, and allow for people to be productive and successful. This is not the final step, but it will lay the groundwork for full decriminalization and legalization.”

According to Democratic Majority Leader Peoples-Stokes, “By passing this bill, we will bring hope and relief to thousands of New Yorkers through the expungement of low-level marijuana records and by preventing unnecessary arrests for small amounts of marijuana. This is an important first step to take towards marijuana justice, but there is more to be done. I will continue fighting for communities and people most harmed by the war on drugs, and remain committed to establishing wide-ranging marijuana-related policies that will improve lives and provide for community investment.”

A Step In The Right Direction

Assemblymember Lentol called the bill’s passage “a step in the right direction for bringing equity to our criminal justice system,” saying, “The discrimination that has been shown, especially in New York City, in the way these drug laws have been applied to minorities for use of marijuana is really a testimony to how important decriminalization is.”

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Medical marijuana has been legal in the state of New York since the passage of the Compassionate Care Act in 2014. Multiple attempts have been made to legalize cannabis on the recreational level, however, bills addressing the issue have repeatedly failed to make it to Governor Cuomo’s desk.

Staff attorney for the Legal Aid Society, Emma Goodman, was less enthusiastic, saying that the bill “does do two good things. It makes something that was a misdemeanor now a violation, and it automatically expunges misdemeanor convictions. That’s more than a lot of states have done.

The problem is that it’s just getting rid of one very small amount of low-level offenses and it’s not actually legalizing marijuana…violations are still arrestable offenses in New York.” Last fall, New York residents publicly debated marijuana legalization. Just months ago, legislators heard arguments on a ban on cannabis drug testing in New York.