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NY Legislature adjourns for 2019 after easing marijuana laws

On the final day of action, lawmakers approved

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. Credit: AFP/Getty Images/Alain Jocard

 ALBANY — Two hours after sunrise Friday, the New York State Legislature closed down a 2019 session marked by progressive 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.

And though Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and house leaders failed to pass a bill to severely restrict the use of solitary confinement in prisons, they agreed to administrative changes that they say ultimately put a 30-day cap on isolation.

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.

Just two weeks ago, state Democratic Chairman Jay Jacobs warned lawmakers they might be taking their progressive agenda too far left and perhaps result in 2020 election losses. Cuomo, Democrat, downplayed that notion in a post-session news conference Friday.

“I don’t think there is any legislation that many moderate Republicans would not have passed,” Cuomo said, though he later called the driver’s license bill the “one hot-button issue” for the 2020 elections in part because of immigration’s role in the presidential election.

In contrast, Sen. Jim Tedisco (R-Schenectady) called the Democratic-dominated session “six months of hell” for taxpayers.

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.

The bill makes possession of marijuana of up to one ounce a violation punishable by a fine of no more than $50; a $200 fine for up to two ounces.

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.

 With Michael Gormley

State & Region