ALBANY — Two hours after sunrise Friday, the New York State Legislature closed down a 2019 session marked by liberal victories on many high-profile issues.
On the final day of action, lawmakers approved a bill to further decriminalize marijuana after failing to agree on a more comprehensive measure to fully legalize recreational use and establish protocols for growing, taxing and selling it.
Before adjournment at around 7:20 a.m., they also approved bills to legalize electric bikes, known as e-bikes, as well as e-scooters and to install state-appointed monitors for the Wyandanch and Hempstead school districts.
With Democrats in full control, the six-month legislative session was marked by new laws overhauling tenant and voting rights, enacting a plan to combat climate change, aiding people in the country illegally to obtain driver's licenses and college aid, and expanding farmworkers' rights.
The marijuana bill will make possession of up to two ounces a violation, punishable by small fines, rather than a crime. Further, it will expunge arrest records for possession of small amounts of marijuana and curb police enforcement that supporters say disproportionately targeted young black and Latino men.
“Decriminalizing marijuana, paired with expunging records for these low-level offenses, will help undo some of these decades long injustices, and allow for people to be productive and successful," Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D-Bronx) said Friday morning.
"This is not the final step, but it will lay the groundwork for full decriminalization and legalization in the future,” Heastie added, referring to the broader effort on marijuana.
“This is a bill that could be said to be about ending the war on drugs,” Sen. Jamaal Bailey (D-Bronx), the bill’s sponsor, said before the Senate vote Thursday. “But, to me, it was a war on black and brown people.”
He said statistics show 80 percent of those arrested “just happen to be" African-American or Latino.
Sen. Andrew Lanza (R-Staten Island), however, said that while unequal enforcement is wrong and he doesn’t want to see anyone arrested for smoking marijuana, no one is talking about the health and public safety concerns of legalizing marijuana.
“Right now, the state is saying, ‘It’s OK to do it,’ ” Lanza said. “This is going to hurt people.”
The bill makes possession of marijuana in the second degree a violation punishable by a fine of no more than $50. The bill eliminates a provision for a repeat offender that would increase the fine up to $250 and 15 days in jail.
The bill 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 past arrests. A person whose arrest record was expunged could also request that the record be destroyed.
The measure requires the state to mount a public information campaign in several languages to alert people that they can have their records expunged. The bill also regulates marijuana smoking under the Clean Indoor Air Act, which restricts tobacco smoking.
Bailey’s bill was introduced Sunday as a bill to legalize marijuana faltered in closed-door negotiations between Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and legislative leaders. Six moderate Democratic senators on Long Island said they couldn’t support the bill because of concerns over public safety, noting that police have said there are no specific laws for driving while high and there is no police technology to prove it.
The Assembly also gave final approval to measures to create state monitors for the Hempstead and Wyandanch school districts. The Senate had approved the bills earlier. It will be up to the governor to sign or veto the bills.
However, a bill to order a comprehensive review of the Hempstead Police Department — following a slew of public corruption indictments and convictions — wasn't approved. Neither was a proposal to triple the number of video slot machines Suffolk Off-Track Betting Corp. is authorized to operate.