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After Legal Weed Push Fails, Albany Goes to Pot Plan B

Hundreds of people packed into Union Square for a rally advocating the legalization marijuana on May 4, 2019.
Hundreds of people packed into Union Square for a rally advocating the legalization marijuana on May 4, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Lawmakers mobilized Thursday to advance a bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana and expunge past low-level convictions, after discussions over legalization efforts stalled.

The Senate and Assembly approved a measure that would eliminate criminal charges for possession of small amounts of marijuana, turning them into non-criminal violations.

Under the proposal, the fine for possessing less than an ounce of marijuana would be capped at $50 and would reach $200 for up to two ounces. The measure also would automatically expunge past low-level marijuana convictions from people’s records.

The fast-moving events proved bittersweet for advocates of legalization. They’d hoped full Democratic control of both houses of the Legislature would put their goal within sight — and they despaired at what they described as a setback that leaves black and Latino users unfairly burdened.

“This measure doesn’t end criminalization. It expands the discretion of law enforcement,” said Kassandra Frederique, the New York State director for Drug Policy Alliance.

“We know that when there is a choice, law enforcement will continue to criminalize communities of color,” she told THE CITY. “The continued racial disparities show that. We can’t take a victory lap New York did 42 years ago.”

In 1977, New York reduced the penalty for small amounts of marijuana, making possession up to 25 grams (0.9 oz) a violation punishable by a fine of up to $100 for first-time offenders.

While praising expungement of criminal records for the lowest-level marijuana offenses, Frederique urged politicians not to close the door on extending relief to other pot-related criminal convictions.

“We hope that the Legislature does not use this as an excuse to not extend this to more records across the state,” Frederique said.

A Fast-Moving Fallback

Sen. Jamaal Bailey (D-Bronx) and Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo) introduced the decriminalization proposal Sunday night. They wanted a fallback in case lawmakers and Gov. Andrew Cuomo couldn’t come to a consensus on how to legalize marijuana before the end of the legislative session this week.

When an agreement failed to materialize over concerns about how to distribute tax proceeds and whether localities could opt out of marijuana sales, lawmakers moved to advance Plan B.

“I’m not saying this is a panacea or a utopian thing we’ve accomplished,” Bailey told reporters Thursday. “As a legislator, I have a lot more work to do. As a conference we have a lot more work to do.”

He added: “But I think this is really a step in the right direction and being able to kind of stem the tide of this failed war on drugs that has unfairly and disproportionately affected black and brown communities so much.”

Meanwhile, the fate of two separate proposals to expand the state’s highly restrictive medical marijuana program and to broaden regulations on hemp, which is used to harvest increasingly popular CBD oil, remain uncertain, Heastie said.

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