Much of the attention on New York's recent legalization of recreational marijuana understandably has been forward-looking, anticipating what will happen in the future.
The focus has been on the pot you'll be able to legally possess and smoke and ingest and grow.
And on the revenue that will flow into the state's coffers, the uses to which that money will be put, and the communities in which it will be spent.
And on the intricacies of licensing dispensaries and delivery businesses, the process of siting the brick-and-mortar stores, and the speculation about which communities might reject them.
And on the dangers that might be posed to safety on the roads and the related difficulties in establishing whether a driver is under the influence.
And on the worries that the drug might become more available to young people under the legal age of 21.
And on the timeline by which all of this will unfold.
But for all the expectations and concerns kindled by these impending developments, it might turn out that the bill's backward-looking power — its exhumation of the past — will be every bit as compelling.
That's because of a provision in the law that calls for the automatic expunging of criminal records of people convicted of marijuana-related offenses that are no longer criminalized. And that's an overdue formal acknowledgment of the failure of the war on drugs, which in New York began with the Rockefeller drug laws of the 1970s.
We've known for years now that we can't arrest our way out of our national and local problem with drugs. But as a society we continued to act that way. And the consequences — for crimes as measly as possessing tiny amounts of pot — were severe and lasting.
Prison sentences, obscenely long and not so long, destroyed individuals, short-circuited careers and fractured families. Billions of dollars were wasted and untold numbers of police hours that could have been better spent pursuing more serious crimes were instead directed to enforcing laws against a drug most Americans have long thought should be legal.
Even those who were arrested but not convicted suffered. Arrests remain on records for years, and they make so many things harder — finding jobs, securing housing, getting loans, obtaining benefits, living decent lives.
And, as has been well known for a long time, the impact was disproportionately levied on people of color, especially Black people.
The data tell the story. Blacks and whites use marijuana in similar numbers, but Blacks are far more likely to be arrested for it. Four times as likely nationally according to several studies, 15 times as likely in Manhattan. People of color comprised 95% of marijuana arrests in New York City last year. The prison stats are just as bleak: Drug offenses result in prison sentences for Blacks more than 10 times as often as for whites.
It's hard to say how many people will have their records expunged thanks to the new law. Nearly 900,000 arrests for low-level marijuana offenses were made in New York between 1990 and 2018 alone, according to the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance; about 160,000 people were slated to have their records wiped clean after a 2019 law that reduced penalties for some marijuana-related crimes. Another hint of the reach of the new law came last week when Nassau County District Attorney Madeline Singas announced she would dismiss nearly 900 current marijuana-possession cases; Suffolk is dismissing more than 1,600 such cases. And New York State has 62 counties.
Every one of these expungements represents a life altered, and a lesson learned: that the real power of looking to the past is the way it can change the future.
Michael Dobie is a member of Newsday's editorial board.