Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the legislation will help communities...

Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo said the legislation will help communities of color. Credit: Jeff Bachner

ALBANY — Possession of small amounts of marijuana has been decriminalized to a fine, while past convictions of misdemeanors for possession will be sealed and could be expunged under a measure signed into law Monday by Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo.

The law removes the criminal penalties for possession of any amount of marijuana less than 2 ounces. The law also seals past misdemeanor convictions for marijuana possession so those wouldn’t have to be revealed in applications such as those for jobs, housing, college entrance or loans. The law states those past convictions “shall be deemed void and wholly unenforceable.” Police and courts could still see a sealed record, but couldn’t use it against a defendant.

The fine for possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana will be $50 and the law eliminates a higher fee for previous convictions. Possession of 1 to 2 ounces of marijuana will carry a $200 fine, regardless of past convictions. The smoking of marijuana will also be limited by the same restrictions placed on tobacco smoking.

The law also authorizes creating a process for people to have their past misdemeanor marijuana convictions expunged, or destroyed, by applying to a state court in any county. That law states those “records of such arrest, prosecution and/or disposition shall be marked as expunged or shall be destroyed.”

The proposal had been opposed by some law enforcement groups, but pushed by the new Democratic majority in the Senate, which gained control of the chamber in the November elections. The proposal, supported by the Assembly’s Democratic majority, had been blocked by the former Senate Republican majority.

“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,” Cuomo said Monday. “By providing individuals who have suffered the consequences of an unfair marijuana conviction with a path to have their records expunged and by reducing draconian penalties, we are taking a critical step forward in addressing a broken and discriminatory criminal justice process.”

While a significant step in the decriminalization of marijuana, the new law is a fallback proposal from a bill to legalize marijuana for recreational use. Legalization was a goal of Democratic legislators, but the proposal fizzled under concerns about how to implement it. Law enforcement advocates said there aren’t effective ways to prosecute a driver for driving while high on marijuana.

Sen. Jamaal Bailey (D-Bronx) supported full legalization of marijuana, but offered the bill signed by Cuomo Monday as a compromise when it was clear legalization lacked enough votes.

“The creation of a mechanism for expungement, both retroactively and forward-looking, is a step in the right direction in finally ending the heavy-handed war on drugs that has decimated communities of color,” Bailey said Monday.

Albany County District Attorney David Soares, president of the state District Attorneys Association, had already stopped prosecuting misdemeanor marijuana possession. He said the new measure will free resources to prosecute more serious crimes, while ending a prosecution that disproportionately targeted racial minorities in low-income neighborhoods.

Legislators say they will press for legalization of marijuana again in the 2020 session beginning Jan. 1.

“While in some regards this legislation is a step forward — including its automatic expungement of low-level marijuana charges — it still fails to address the radically disparate enforcement of marijuana possession laws or any of the collateral consequences created by marijuana prohibition that almost exclusively affect black and Latino communities,” said Emma Goodman, attorney with the Criminal Defense Practice’s Special Litigation Unit at The Legal Aid Society.

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