Yesterday, Governor Cuomo announced his renewed commitment to decriminalizing marijuana possession in his State of the State Book, which outlines his agenda for the 2017 Legislative Session.
New York State first decriminalized personal marijuana possession in 1977, recognizing the harmful impact an arrest could have on young people. Criminalization of the offense has continued, however, due to a loophole left in the law by lawmakers that distinguished between personal and public view possession, where possession in public view is still a misdemeanor. Enforcement of this loophole has impacted primarily communities of color, who represented more than 83% of those arrested statewide in 2015. The racial disparities in enforcement have been a significant motivator for groups who have called for reform.
“In 2016, Brooklyn Defender Services represented 1,070 of the many thousands of New Yorkers arrested for low-level marijuana possession, of whom 85% were Black and/or Latinx and 371 were 21 or younger. Our clients can lose their jobs, homes, and children, and even be detained by immigration authorities and deported for this offense, which a majority of Americans believe should be legal. We applaud any legislation that will reduce or—better—eliminate these senseless and discriminatory arrests,” said Lisa Schreibersdorf, Executive Director of Brooklyn Defender Services.
Citing the costliness of marijuana possession arrests and the devastating collateral consequences faced by New Yorkers who are arrested for the offense, Governor Cuomo said this proposal was in line with his existing “commitment to reduce the number of nonviolent individuals who become needlessly entangled in the criminal justice system.”
“We are pleased that Governor Cuomo remains committed to ending arrests for low-level marijuana possession in New York and that he recognizes the human and financial cost of marijuana prohibition.” said Alyssa Aguilera, Co-Executive Director, VOCAL-NY. “However, without real political muscle we know that this proposal will continue to languish, as it has for several years now. We hope that by including marijuana decriminalization in his State of the State Book that the Governor will not only support – but also fight for – long overdue marijuana reform.”
More than 800,000 New Yorkers have been arrested for low-level marijuana possession offenses in the last 20 years. A significant portion of those arrested for these offenses still have criminal arrest records that prevent access to services and restrict their opportunity to find meaningful work. The Governor acknowledged the challenges posed by a marijuana possession arrest: “Individuals can miss work, be fired, establish a record that prevents them from finding work in the future, and spend time in jail awaiting trial if they are unable to post bail.”
Governor Cuomo pushed heavily for closing that loophole in 2014 but was blocked by Senate Republicans who opposed a measure that would have standardized the penalty for all low-level possession as a violation, which would have resulted in a fine instead of arrest. These arrests continue, which is why action to remove the penalty is so important.
“New York’s marijuana arrest crusade has resulted in significant harms for those who are most vulnerable and has been used as a justification for the hyper-policing of communities of color. We see the Governor’s proposal as a positive step and also hope to engage with the Governor’s office on sealing the records of those who have been unjustly targeted so that this meaningful change can have the type of impact that is needed” said Chris Alexander, Policy Coordinator, New York, Drug Policy Alliance. “Ultimately, the best way to address the disparities and challenges posed by prohibition is to legalize and regulate marijuana in New York. We look forward to discussing a pathway to ending prohibition with the Governor this session.”
Governor Cuomo’s proposal comes just a few months after California, Maine, Nevada and neighboring Massachusetts joined the four other states that have already voted to tax and regulate the marijuana for adult use.