a new record

More Than 200,000 Pot Convictions Poised for Clearing

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

More than 200,000 low-level marijuana convictions would be cleared under a proposal approved by state lawmakers last month to expunge records and decriminalize small amounts of the drug, officials estimate.

But only a little more than 24,000 people would end up with no visible criminal record, according to the analysis from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services conducted after a request by THE CITY.

That’s because many individuals with low-level pot raps on their records also have convictions for other charges, DCJS indicated.

But the New York Drug Policy Alliance charged that the state badly low-balled estimates of how many records should be expunged. The group, which had campaigned for legalization of marijuana, put the number at roughly 900,000.

“It seems like state agencies are taking a narrow reading of the bill, meaning the scope of relief could end up being only a small fraction of the hundreds of thousands of New Yorkers whose lives are haunted by a prior low-level marijuana arrest,” said Melissa Moore, the Alliance’s deputy state director.

Under the measure passed by the state Senate and Assembly last month, New York would expunge at least 202,189 low-level marijuana convictions logged between 1977 and mid-May of 2019, the DCJS analysis found.

The cleared records would include 76,053 convictions for unlawful possession of marijuana and 126,136 convictions for fifth-degree criminal possession of marijuana  — more than 0.9 ounces — according to DCJS.

Under the bill approved by the state Legislature, possession of up to two ounces of marijuana would be punishable by fines of up to $200, but result in no criminal consequences.

‘A Major, Major Accomplishment’

The proposal, which has the support of Gov. Andrew Cuomo, would reclassify possession of small quantities of marijuana as non-criminal violations.

Cuomo has touted the measure’s potentially transformative impact — calling decriminalization “historic” and “a major, major accomplishment” during a radio appearance last month.

Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks about his accomplishments during an Association for a Better New York luncheon at Cipriani Wall Street, April 4, 2019.
Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks about his accomplishments during an Association for a Better New York luncheon at Cipriani Wall Street, April 4, 2019. Photo: Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

“One of the real crimes, pardon the expression, the social crimes of marijuana was that it victimized black and brown generations with convictions that then hurt them for the rest of their lives,” the governor said. “And it was enforced in a discriminatory way.”

Still, DCJS estimates that just 24,409 people with low-level marijuana convictions will no longer have criminal records in New York State if the bill is signed into law.

Hazy on the Details

Meanwhile, exactly how Division of Criminal Justice Service and the Office of Court Administration will go about clearing records remains unclear, as THE CITY recently reported.

DCJS currently uses an automated process to seal criminal records. Expunging records might require new technology, said Janine Kava, a DCJS spokesperson.

The decriminalization measure approved in the final days of the 2019 legislative session emerged from lawmakers’ failure to reach consensus over how to legalize marijuana.

When an agreement failed to gel amid concerns about how to distribute tax proceeds and whether localities could opt out of marijuana sales, lawmakers turned to decriminalization as a fallback.

Advocates for full legalization had warned that the decriminalization measure would fall short of relief for black and Latino New Yorkers who’d disproportionately suffered the burden of discriminatory enforcement of pot prohibition.

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