ALBANY ? Last minute talks that could lead to the legalization of marijuana have the state’s top attorney pushing for past pot arrests to be expunged.
Attorney General Letitia James, along with leaders from The Black Institute and Riverside Church, called on Gov. Cuomo and Legislative leaders to ensure that minor pot-related convictions will be cleared if the Empire State becomes the 11th in the country to allow adult use of recreational cannabis.
“We must guarantee that the door is shut forever and that past policy mistakes do not further haunt the victims of over-policing,” James wrote in a letter Friday to Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D-Yonkers) and Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie.
The Black Institute notes that expunging those records would be a game changer for thousands of men and women, predominantly minorities, who are barred from accessing things such as public housing and financial aid due to previous arrests.
“The war on drugs and the way that entire communities have been criminalized through the racially disproportionate enforcement of marijuana prohibition can finally end,” the group’s president Bertha Lewis wrote.
The cannabis bill being considered by lawmakers in the state capital, with only three days left in the legislative session, was tweaked recently to more closely mirror Cuomo’s own pot proposal. Pot talks fell apart earlier this year as proponents failed to get the measure included in the state budget.
The 11th hour push to re-spark the debate ahead of the end of session on Wednesday has been bolstered by joint talks between the two chambers and the Cuomo administration, sources said Saturday.
The Assembly conferenced the revamped legislation last week and some are confident that if lawmakers vote on the measure before the end of session it could be approved.
“It could pass,” one Democratic insider said. “There is still a chance that it happens.”
However, the bill, which would allow marijuana to be legally grown, sold and used for recreational purposes, differs from what Cuomo pitched earlier in the year on one major issue: it would expunge the records of those previously convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana, rather than seal them as the governor has suggested.
James and the others noted that over the past 20 years, the state has seen 800,000 arrests for possession of small amounts of marijuana, the majority of which were black and Latino New Yorkers.
“These records prevent them from accessing higher education, block them from obtaining public housing and too often prevent them from finding gainful employment,” Riverside’s head pastor, the Rev. Amy Butler, wrote to Cuomo. “That is the real crime, and communities across the state are paying the penalty.”
Cuomo indicated last month that expunging those records wouldn’t be a deal breaker for him.
But legal weed still faces a tough road in the Senate, where suburban lawmakers have raised concerns about safety and keeping kids away from cannabis.
Stewart-Cousins said earlier this month that legalizing recreational marijuana at some point in the near future is inevitable, but admitted that at the moment there are some unresolved issues about equity and tax revenue.
“I don’t think anybody doubts that marijuana will be legalized,” she said. “I think what we are trying to figure out is the revenue. What we are trying to figure out is how we are able to include communities who have been disparately impacted in this new attitude toward marijuana."
Expunging those records isn’t the only issue where the bill, sponsored by Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo) and Sen. Liz Krueger (D-Manhattan), differs from Cuomo’s plan.
Lawmakers want a 50-50 split between the state Education Department and grants to fund programs serving communities that were disparately affected by current marijuana laws.
Cuomo’s original plan would give his administration control over much of how the estimated $130 million a year in tax revenue would be spent.
The current bill also decreases the amount of pot a person could legally possess, increases taxes from what was originally proposed earlier in the session and includes $1 million a year for three years to train police officers to identify people driving under the influence of drugs.
The governor reiterated his support for legalization on Friday, but indicated that safety is still a main concern.