Photo: Gabriele Holtermann-Gordon via AP Images
New York joined a growing number of states in legalizing marijuana. Photo: Gabriele Holtermann-Gordon via AP Images

New York legalizes recreational marijuana in a major step towards racial equity

The legislation will also expunge previous marijuana convictions, which disproportionately affect Black and Brown communities.


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As of Wednesday, March 31, over 150,000 people will have their previous marijuana convictions sealed thanks to a new New York law. 

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill in July 2020 that would further decriminalize marijuana use in the state. 

The legislation reduces the penalty for illegal possession to a violation punishable by a fine, and allows those with certain marijuana convictions to have their records expunged. 

Cuomo described the legislation as long overdue and the “start of a new chapter in the criminal justice system.” 

According to data collected by the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), Black people are 3.6 times more likely than white people to be arrested for marijuana possession, despite similar rates of usage among both populations. 

In the ACLU’S report, “The War on Marijuana in Black and White,” it was found that racial disparities worsened in 31 states since 2010. 

In Montana, Kentucky, Illinois, West Virginia and Iowa, Black people were more than seven times more likely to be arrested for marijuana charges than white people. At the national level, there are regions where Black people are more than 20, 30, 40 or even 50 times more likely to be arrested when compared to white people. 

“Communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by laws governing marijuana for far too long, and today we are ending this injustice once and for all,” Cuomo said.

Cuomo stressed that by providing individuals with a path to have their records expunged, especially those who were unjustly incarcerated due to their race or ethnicity, many New Yorkers will have the chance to “live better and more productive, successful and healthier lives.” 

On Wednesday, the governor signed a bill that legalizes recreational marijuana, making it the 16th state to do so. The Senate voted 40-23 in favor, and the Assembly approved it 100-49. 

The bill makes it legal to possess small amounts of pot, launches programs to help communities recover from the burden of the war on drugs, and will eventually allow for people over the age of 21 to purchase marijuana. 

Under the new law, convictions are automatically sealed in the system, but individuals seeking to have their records destroyed must petition the court where the conviction occurred. 

The legislation also offers much-needed protection for people experiencing discrimination for marijuana use in public housing, workplaces, schools and colleges.

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes honed in on the destruction that the war on drugs brought on for so many Black and Brown people in the state and across the nation.

“We have literally destroyed the lives of multiple thousands of people. That’s what’s good about this legislation...we’re going to turn around the lives of some of these people and help them be able to take care of themselves, their families and their communities,” Stokes said. 

Lawmakers have estimated that over time, the legislation will bring in $300 million annually that will cover the regulation and enforcement of the program, and the remainder will be divided among schools, drug treatment and prevention programs.

The revenue will also fund investments into job skills, adult education and other services in targeted communities.

"I'm driving this because I want people to be free from incarceration for a drug that people in their communities use every day," Stokes said.

New York residents who are interested in purchasing cannabis won’t be able to until the state sets up regulations and a proposed cannabis board. Stokes estimated that the process could take up to 18 months.

When sales do begin, consumers can have marijuana delivered or use the flower in new social lounges.

If individual New Yorkers want to grow their own plants for personal consumption, they will be permitted under the legislation, but they will need to wait until 18 months after the first regulated adult-use sale. Patients who use the plant for medicinal purposes can begin growing just six months after the bill passes.

The legislation has expanded the list of health conditions that qualify someone for a medical marijuana prescription, but residents with newly-qualifying conditions will also have to wait for the state to issue new regulations.

NYC Mayor Bill de Blasio told WDTV ABC 11 that he supports the legislation on the basis of racial equity.

“I think this bill goes a long way. I think there’s more to do after, but it goes a long way,” de Blasio said.

L. Joy Williams, President of Brooklyn’s NAACP, said in a statement that this legislation is a victory for many Black and Brown New Yorkers who were targeted in the “predatory nature” of the war on drugs. 

“The passage of this legislation sets a standard across the country that as we seek to dismantle the many structures of criminalization, racism and inequity in our society, that we must do so by centering the people and the communities most harmed,” Williams said. 


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