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Long IslandColumnistsJoye Brown

You haven't heard the last of the marijuana debate

Marijuana legalization supporters rally on June 16 outside

Marijuana legalization supporters rally on June 16 outside Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo's Manhattan office to urge lawmakers to enact the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

The title of the bill, as is the norm for such things, is as lengthy as it is dry:

"An act to amend the penal law and the criminal procedure law, in relation to vacating records for certain proceedings; and to amend the public health law, in relation to the definition of smoking."

The measure, passed by a legislature dominated by Democrats in Albany last week, will both reduce penalties for marijuana possession, to as low as $50, and automatically expunge the records of many who have been convicted of low-level marijuana crimes across the state.

And yes, it will apply to both Nassau and Suffolk.

Just to clear up any confusion: Both counties, earlier this year, said they would opt out of any state-passed measure that would legalize the cultivation, sale, distribution, public consumption and marketing of recreational weed.

The measure passed last week did none of those things.

Instead, the bill reclassified possession of less than one ounce of the drug as a violation — that's the $50 fine — and possession of between one and two ounces as a violation (instead of a misdemeanor), which would yield a $200 fine.

Possession of more than two ounces would remain a crime.

And smoking weed in public would remain a violation.

Will reductions to violations for possessing small amounts encourage more Long Islanders to use marijuana?

Jeffrey Reynolds, head of the Family and Children’s Association, a nonprofit social services agency, doesn't think so.

"I know some disagree," said Reynolds, who has been on both local and state task forces considering whether New York State should legalize the drug, "but I don't think it necessarily will create more use."

A spokeswoman for County Executive Laura Curran said Nassau officials, including police, had yet to fully digest the particulars of the bill.

"Nassau County is in the process of reviewing the legislation," the spokeswoman, Christine Geed, said in an emailed response. "We’re working with law enforcement and other officials to ensure we comply with the law." She said the county's legal bureau will "review all aspects and disseminate the new guidelines to all department members."

A spokesman for Suffolk County Executive Steve Bellone, replying to questions via email, wrote only that, "We are currently reviewing the legislation recently passed at the state level.”

In addition to decriminalizing possession of the drug, the measure calls for expunging the records for certain low-level marijuana convictions and charges, which disproportionally have impacted African Americans and Latino residents.

According to a news release from Carl Heastie, Assembly speaker (and SUNY Stony Brook alum), once charges and records are expunged, the state would notify police, courts and other law enforcement agencies.

Thus far, it remains unclear as to which agency would handle the task.

Or how much it would cost.

In Nassau, according to a spokesman for District Attorney Madeline Singas, virtually all marijuana cases already were being given adjournments in contemplation of dismissal — which meant that if defendants adhered to certain conditions, the case would be dismissed.

With the new legislation, no such workaround would be necessary because such cases would be handled as violations. In addition, it's likely that bench warrants associated with misdemeanor marijuana charges could end up being vacated.

"With regards to the expungement process," said spokesman Brendan Brosh, "we're reviewing the legislation … ideally this would be handled on a state level."

Even so, Singas remains concerned, Brosh said, about drugged driving and traffic safety.

"We need a public awareness campaign that gets the word out ASAP," Brosh said, "along with [seeking] changes to the testing and drugged driving laws.

Reynolds joined Heastie and others in calling the move to decriminalize marijuana charges and expunge misdemeanor records significant.

"What it means for some of the people we help is that there would no longer be a criminal conviction, which will have a big impact for things like looking for a job or housing," he said.

Another appeal of the measure passed last week, Reynolds added, is that it separates a long-needed social justice aspect of disproportionate marijuana-related convictions from the revenue-generating and health-and-safety-related aspects of legalizing cultivation and sale of the drug.

Reynolds does not believe marijuana should be legalized (click browser in SoundCloud audio link to hear why) , but he said, "There's the reality that there's much frothing at the mouth over revenue legalization would create."

Before proceeding, however, "There's still a lot about safety, about where marijuana would be sold and a host of other things to be considered."

All of which is to say, the quest to legalize marijuana in New York State is far from being over.


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