Pubdate: Thu, 29 Aug 2019
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2019 The New York Times Company
Author: Azi Paybarah


Even as states across the country have legalized marijuana,
potentially opening the door to a multibillion dollar industry, the
impact of marijuana criminalization is still being felt by people -
mostly black and Hispanic - whose records are marked by low-level
convictions related to the drug.

But on Wednesday, New York began the process of expunging many of
those records, as part of a new state law to reduce penalties
associated with marijuana-related crimes, a spokesman for Gov. Andrew
M. Cuomo confirmed.

"For too long communities of color have been disproportionately
impacted by laws governing marijuana and have suffered the lifelong
consequences of an unfair marijuana conviction," Mr. Cuomo said in a

Under the new law, which was passed in June and took effect on
Wednesday, about 160,000 people with marijuana convictions in the
state will have those convictions cleared from their record, according
to a spokeswoman for the State Division of Criminal Justice Services.

Of those people, 10,872 people with convictions in New York City will
have no criminal records in the state, the spokeswoman said. In the
rest of the state, an additional 13,537 people will have no criminal
records in New York once these convictions are wiped from their
record, the spokeswoman said.

Sealing these records would ensure that a person's marijuana-related
conviction would not come up in most background checks, state
officials said.

A method for expunging the records, which has never been done in New
York, is still being developed, the officials said. The process could
take up to a year, a spokesman for the State Office of Court
Administration, Lucian Chalfen, said.

The Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit group, said the number of people
who would have their records cleared could be many times higher than
the number cited by the state; the alliance cited figures showing that
between 1990 and 2018, 867,701 arrests were made in New York State for
low-level marijuana offenses.

Under the new law, the classification of the penalty for possessing
between one and two ounces of marijuana has been lowered to a
violation, and fines have been capped at $200. Previously, such
possession was a Class B misdemeanor. The fine for possessing less
than one ounce of marijuana has been lowered to $50, from $150.

The move to reduce fines and clear people's records has been embraced
by advocates of criminal justice reform, many of whom said criminal
penalties for using marijuana fell disproportionately on black and
Hispanic residents.

Khalil A. Cumberbatch, an advocate who was pardoned by Mr. Cuomo in
2014 after serving time for a robbery conviction, said in a statement
that expunging marijuana records "gives people a new lease on life,
removing the suffocating stain of stigma that prevents so many from
reaching their highest potential."

State Senator Zellnor Myrie of Brooklyn, a co-sponsor of the bill,
said he hoped lawmakers will build on this "first step."

"I represent Brownsville; that was ground zero for a lot of this," he
said of marijuana enforcement. Expunging records "is just the
beginning of the state recognizing the errors of that war."

In February, a study from John Jay College found that "blacks and
Hispanics consistently had higher rates of arrest for misdemeanor
marijuana possession compared to whites."

Kevin Sabet, director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an advocacy
group, said he embraced expunging low-level offenses, but not full

"We don't want people in prison for marijuana use," Mr. Sabet said.
"But the criminal sanctions on marijuana is not a reason to
commercialize and normalize marijuana."

Mr. Sabet said he wanted to see marijuana possession likened to
driving over the speed limit. "It's something discouraged," he said,
"but it's not something that is going to destroy your life if you're
caught doing it."

New York began decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana in 1977, one
of the few states to take such a step at that time. In 2014, the state
legalized a medicinal marijuana program with restrictions that
reflected Mr. Cuomo's apprehension toward the drug; for example,
smoking and eating the drug are prohibited under that program.

Today, more than 30 states allow medical use of marijuana. Eleven
states have legalized the adult use of marijuana. Last year, the
district attorneys in Manhattan and Brooklyn stopped prosecuting cases
of marijuana possession and smoking in public.

Correction: Aug. 29, 2019

An earlier version of this article incorrectly described the number of
people affected by a new law reducing penalties associated with
marijuana-related crimes. About 160,000 people with low-level
marijuana convictions in New York will see those convictions cleared
from their record. And of that number, 10,872 in New York City and
13,537 in the rest of the state, will have no criminal records after
their marijuana convictions are cleared. The remaining approximately
136,000 people will still have criminal records because of other
convictions. It is not the case that only the 10,872 in New York City
and 13,537 in the rest of the state will have their low-level
marijuana convictions cleared from their records.
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