On Monday, Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill that makes any kind of marijuana possession under two ounces a civil, not a criminal offense, and automatically expunges low-level possession charges from New Yorkers' records.
The bill, passed by the state legislature last month after legalization efforts collapsed, makes marijuana possession under one ounce a $50 fine; between one and two ounces, the penalty is $200. The fine for smoking marijuana in public falls under the second of the two offenses. Both offenses are levied regardless of criminal history. The bill will become law in 30 days.
New York State actually decriminalized marijuana in "public view" in 1977, but that did not stop the NYPD and police departments across the state from making around 900,000 low-level marijuana arrests over that time period, the overwhelming majority of them affecting people of color. The automatic expungement component of the bill the governor just signed means that in cases where low-level possession is the top charge, all traces of it will be wiped from the record. The State Division of Criminal Justice Services will be responsible for identifying and expunging the records.
"It is significant to have automatic expungement for the first time in New York State," Melissa Moore, the deputy state director for Drug Policy Alliance New York told Gothamist. But Moore said that the decriminalization bill falls short in ways that the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, which would have legalized marijuana, did not.
"It doesn't deal with the ways in which housing and employment can be impacted by a marijuana arrest. It doesn't deal with the child welfare or family court implications, it doesn't deal with immigration consequences for people," Moore said.
"[Legislators] were working really quickly at the end of session, frankly, and unfortunately it shows," she added.
The lawmakers seemed to acknowledge as much.
"While this legislation falls short of the goal of legalization of adult-use cannabis, the ability to create a mechanism for expungement, both retroactively and forward-looking, is a step in the right direction in finally ending the heavy-handed war on drugs that has decimated communities of color," State Senator Jamaal Bailey said in a release after the bill's passage.
In his own release, Cuomo called the decriminalization bill "a critical step forward in addressing a broken and discriminatory criminal justice process."
While 30 State Senators supported a last minute legalization bill—two shy of the amount necessary to pass it—representatives from Long Island, Westchester, and parts of New York City were skeptical enough to kill it.
"The Senate Democratic Majority will continue our efforts for full legalization and regulation of marijuana," Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins said in a statement. "And today's decriminalization is a good first step."