New York Reduces Penalties of Low-Level Marijuana Possession, Thousands of Convictions Expunged

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Legalization support for marijuana is increasing, and New York has taken the next step to further decriminalizing marijuana by reducing the penalties associated with minor marijuana convictions. Governor Andrew Cuomo signed this bill in July, but it went into effect August 28, significantly impacting thousands in New York.

Reducing the Penalties

Under the new law, possession of fewer than two ounces of marijuana is no longer considered a criminal penalty. The penalty for possession of less than 1 ounce of marijuana is reduced from $150 to $50. On the other hand, the maximum fine for the possession of between 1 and 2 ounces of marijuana is $200, regardless of criminal history.

Aside from smaller fines, the state also plans to expunge nearly 160,000 convictions. That means certain people will have no criminal record within New York. According to the Division of Criminal Justice Services, 10,872 individuals in New York City will automatically have no criminal record. The rest of the state will see an estimated 13,537 people will have no criminal record after this.

A Clean Slate

The majority of people affected by these low-level drug convictions have longtime been people of color. In February, a study from John Jay College found that “blacks and Hispanics consistently had higher rates of arrest for misdemeanor marijuana possession compared to whites.”

Those lucky enough to have these records sealed would mean their previous convictions would not show up in most background checks, according to state officials.

“By providing individuals a path to have their records expunged, including those who have been unjustly impacted based on their race or ethnicity, and reducing the penalty for unlawful possession of marijuana to a fine, we are giving many New Yorkers the opportunity to live better and more productive, successful and healthier lives,” Cuomo said in a statement.
These convictions range from the late 1970s through June of this year. Eventually, the state hopes to clean 202,000 convictions, effectively causing 24,409 people to no longer have a criminal record.

One Small Step

The Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit group, believes the number of people who would have their records cleared could be higher than what the state cited. Between 1990 and 2018, the DPA cite 867,701 arrests in New York State for low-level marijuana offenses. Only a quarter of those arrested for low-level marijuana possession will be cleared of their record. 

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