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NY legislative effort to legalize marijuana is dead for this year

Marijuana legalization supporters rally Sunday in Manhattan.

Marijuana legalization supporters rally Sunday in Manhattan. Photo Credit: Charles Eckert

ALBANY — The effort to legalize marijuana in New York this year died Wednesday. In its place rose an agreement to further decriminalize marijuana and to clear the records of those arrested for possession of small amounts of weed.

“I have no doubt that prohibition is an outdated and irrational policy, and its days are numbered,” said Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), a sponsor of the legalization bill. “Unfortunately, the delay means countless more New Yorkers will have their lives upended by unnecessary and racially disparate enforcement before we inevitably legalize.”

“We came very close to crossing the finish line, but we ran out of time,” Krueger said.

Key to blocking the bill was the unity of the six Democratic senators from Long Island, which is a more moderate voting bloc in the more progressive Democratic majority.

“I think you have to look at this from the perspective of what this would do to our roads, where we have the highest fatality rate in the state,” said Sen. Todd Kaminsky (D-Long Beach). He noted that law enforcement officials have warned there are inadequate laws for driving while high on marijuana and ineffective technology to prove it.

“I don’t have a philosophical place in my heart for this, but I know people sent me to Albany to protect their children and to make streets safer,” Kaminsky said in an interview.

In place of the bill to legalize marijuana, an alternative gained support from legislative leaders and Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo. That measure would reduce possession of most small amounts of marijuana for personal use to a fifth-degree violation, similar to a traffic infraction, according to the bill sponsored by Sen. Jamaal Bailey (D-Bronx) and Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo).

That bill was scheduled to be approved by the Senate and Assembly on Thursday, a day after the 2019 legislation session had been scheduled to end.

The bill would make possession of marijuana in the second degree a violation punishable by up to a fine of no more than $50. The bill eliminates a provision for a repeat offender that would make that fine up to $250 and 15 days in jail. The new bill would also no longer allow police to charge a misdemeanor for the public smoking of marijuana in a place where smoking is allowed.

It also requires that records of past arrests for violation-level possession of small amounts of the drug be expunged or destroyed, prohibits those past arrests from being used to deny employment or other rights, and prohibits anyone from being forced to confirm the past arrests. A person whose arrest record was expunged also could request that the record be destroyed.

Demonstrators who made frequent trips to the Capitol this year to lobby for legalization of marijuana returned Wednesday to vent their anger.

“We’re disappointed with the ‘superhero progressives,’” said Pilar de Jesus of East Harlem.

“I’m disappointed in my Democratic Party that was supposed to represent us,” said Gail Gadsdey of the South Bronx, part of the busload of activists for the legalization of marijuana.

“People need to vote different next time,” she said. “I’m voting different.”

Protesters, including those seeking “marijuana justice,” briefly blocked the Assembly entrance Wednesday, calling for fair treatment by police for all. They argued that legalization of marijuana wasn’t just about legitimizing the social drug, but to end harassment by police of young black and Latino men and women and teenagers. The legalization bill also would have created a retail distribution system intended to benefit low-income neighborhoods that were targeted most during decades of enforcing past marijuana laws.

“The decriminalization bill under consideration … would fail to reverse the discriminatory impacts of the ‘war on drugs,’ ” according to the Drug Policy Alliance, which lobbied for legalization. “This is a failure of leadership.”

Legalization of marijuana is expected to be attempted again next year, during a legislative election year. Supporters say the political pressure by voters might help pass the bill, which is popular with the public, while others say it could be too big and sensitive a measure to handle in an election year. Traditionally, ardent supporters of a major bill such as legalizing marijuana opposed partial measures, fearing  that would detract from demand for a comprehensive bill.

— Yancey Roy

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