New York Legislators Vote to Pass Marijuana Decriminalization Bill

This year’s plan to legalize fizzled, but at least pot possession is now equivalent to a parking violation.
New York Legislators Vote to Pass Marijuana Decriminalization Bill
Joshua Resnick/ Shutterstock

Unable to pass an anticipated bill to legalize marijuana in the state, New York’s state Senate and Assembly passed a bill on Thursday night to decriminalize the drug. Under the new regulation, small scale cannabis possession charges would be roughly equivalent to getting a parking ticket; $50 for under an ounce and $200 for under two ounces.

The bill was passed mere hours before the end of the Senate’s 2019 session, and passed the state Assembly on Friday morning shortly before that body recessed for the year.

Its sponsor was Democrat Senator from the Bronx Jamaal Bailey, who said small scale marijuana possession charges can derail individuals’ lives, “limiting their access to housing, access to education, affecting their ability to obtain employment.”

A collective moan could almost be heard coming out of the Empire State after Senator Liz Krueger announced on Wednesday that the more comprehensive legalization bill was DOA. The bill was a stated priority of Governor Andrew Cuomo, who hoped to pass the legislation within the first 100 days of his administration.

But it soon became clear that Cuomo lacked the political power to push through certain aspects of the legislation that were not so easy to resolve immediately — namely, the administration of cannabis taxes, conviction expungement, and what rights local jurisdictions had to keep the marijuana industry out. In March, a group of POC lawmakers made it known that unless racial justice measures were included in the plan, they would withdraw their support.

Lacking legislative momentum, other New York officials have been doing their part to redefine the way that the government deals with cannabis. Attorney General Eric Gonzalez asked a judge in December to clear 28 misdemeanor marijuana possession cases, and vacated warrants for 1,400 people who had missed their court date for possession charges.

Though cannabis industry groups are certainly ready to start making money selling the drug to New York residents, the urgency for legalization goes far beyond profits. A 2018 study by the New York Times found that areas with larger Black populations saw higher arrest rates for cannabis related charges.

New York member of US Congress Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez spoken out against the racism inherent in industry-driven legalization measures, saying that emphasis on large corporations within the world of marijuana was leaving the people most negatively impacted by the drug’s prohibition out of the loop. Ocasio-Cortez voiced her support for “affirmative-action licensing”, which has been one of the suggestions raised by the state level POC lawmakers in New York who had threatened to block the legislation in the absence of such programs.

The New York City council has also been trying to lead the way when it comes to corrective social justice measures related to cannabis. In February, the council’s progressive caucus introduced a bill that would prohibit employers from doing cannabis drug testing on their employees. In April, it also considered a bill that would end marijuana testing for people on parole. Testing positive for the drug can derail a person’s attempts to get their lives back on track. “We’re trying to build stable communities,” said the chair of the council’s public safety committee.

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