New York’s Governor Cuomo Signs Bill to Decriminalize Marijuana

It’s not legalization — but it’s still a win.
New York's Governor Cuomo Signs Bill to Decriminalize Marijuana
Joshua Resnick/ Shutterstock

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a historic bill on Monday to decriminalize the possession of cannabis. “Communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by laws governing marijuana for far too long, and today we are ending this injustice once and for all,” he said. In 30 days, New Yorkers will no longer need to worry about getting picked up on the street for small time pot possession.

That is a win. Even better; an estimated 600,000 state residents could now be eligible for the expungement of past cannabis-related convictions. 

But it would be wildly inaccurate to call this the legislative outcome that Cuomo, legislators, and cannabis advocates were seeking — or even the New York public, which has shown itself to favor the end of marijuana prohibition. 

Full-scale legalization was very much on the table this year. In fact, the governor promised during his re-election campaign that he would pass a plan to regulate the production, sale, and consumption of marijuana within the first 100 days of his second term.

For a moment there, it seemed that New Yorkers would see legalization in 2019 via the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, which was co-sponsored by 16 Democratic senators. But Cuomo appeared to vastly underestimate the complexity of such a program, and seemed to grow disinterested in pushing the plan through in the crucial final months. Likewise, nine downstate Democratic senators were never convinced to support the plan, key votes that the bill needed to pass. 

Primary among the complexities was the responsibility the government had toward the POC communities that have been severely penalized under cannabis prohibition. This spring, a group of NY lawmakers of color threatened to pull their support of the legislation entirely unless racial justice was prioritized in its final language. 

Another issue that caused the legislation to lose valuable time and ground was taxation. The proposed legislation would have levied three taxes on the industry, one to be taken out at the time of cultivation, and two different kinds of taxes that would be charged upon sale to a retail dispensary, one whose revenues go to the state and the other for the county in which the dispensary is located. Critics said that put an undue level of cost on dispensaries, which are often small businesses. 

When legislators were unable to reach a compromise on the issue in June, the legalization bill was acknowledged to have perished without having reached a floor vote, as far as this year’s session is concerned. The lawmakers rallied, and voted to pass the decriminalization plan instead

The decriminalization bill downgrades the penalties for cannabis possession to an offense on level with parking violations. New Yorkers will be on the hook for $50 if they are discovered with under one ounce, and a $200 fine for quantities between one and two ounces. 

Perhaps instead of disappointment over legalization’s (hopefully temporary) defeat, we should all be focused on the positives; far less New Yorkers, largely from POC communities, who will have their lives ruined over the mis-scheduling of this still federally-criminalized drug.

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