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New marijuana decriminalization law allowing past convictions to be expunged goes into effect in New York

2019-08-29

New marijuana decriminalization law goes into effect in New York. (Nastasic/Getty Images/iStockphoto)

ALBANY — Some New Yorkers’ past pot problems are going up in smoke.

Thousands of people with low-level marijuana convictions will automatically have their records expunged thanks to the state’s new decriminalization law that went into effect Wednesday.

The New York State Division of Criminal Justice Services estimates about 14,000 people from the five boroughs and nearly 11,000 others statewide will qualify. In all, the measure will lead to the sealing of more than 200,000 convictions, officials said.

The new law also softens penalties for possessing small amounts of marijuana and lowers the maximum penalty for possessing less than an ounce of pot to $50.

Possessing under two ounces of pot is now a violation similar to a traffic ticket, instead of a criminal charge. Selling weed is still a crime.

Gov. Cuomo, who signed the measure last month after lawmakers failed to reach an agreement on full legalization, said it is high time New York reassessed its approach to marijuana enforcement.

“For too long communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by laws governing marijuana and have suffered the life-long consequences of an unfair marijuana conviction,” he said in a statement.

Advocates for full cannabis legalization see the law as a step in the right direction, but said it falls far short of addressing the deep-rooted problems with how pot is policed in communities of color.

“This is a momentous occasion, but it is only halfway to rectifying the problems that exist with regard to continued marijuana prohibition,” said David Holland, the executive and legal director of Empire State RML.

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Holland noted fines can still be a burden, violations can remain on some records and that people can still be taken into custody.

“While many will have their prior records expunged, there’s no guidance for law enforcement going forward," he said. "We’ll see, rather than people of color and other targeted groups suffering the consequence of arrest, now they’re going to be targeted for violations that incur economic fines.”