A bill signed into law 30 days ago takes effect today, partially decriminalizing marijuana possession (again). Residents across New York State can publicly possess or smoke up to 2 ounces of marijuana without criminal penalties.
The new law changes Marijuana Possession in the Fifth Degree from a low-level misdemeanor to a non-criminal violation. That means police, in theory, can’t arrest people but can only issue summonses that could lead to fines.
The maximum penalty is $50 for possessing less than one ounce of pot and a maximum of $200 for between one and two ounces.
But there are a WHOLE lot of caveats.
Violations are still trouble. A violation isn’t a criminal conviction, but they can still have significant consequences, according to Emma Goodman, a lawyer for the Legal Aid Society. “It's still something that shows up on your record and stays with you for a very long time,” she said. “And it can affect your ability to get jobs and housing and all of the things that criminal convictions can affect.”
You can still be arrested and brought to the police station. The law allows law enforcement officers to take into custody accused violators who have no identification on them or who are from out of state. Also, selling marijuana remains a crime – and is a felony – and police have wide latitude to arrest people they allege possess it with intent to sell.
Be careful where you smoke. Any place where it’s illegal to smoke cigarettes, it’s also illegal to smoke weed. That means most indoor spaces and no parks, beaches, school grounds, subway stations and many other spaces.
Marijuana can be a “gateway drug”—to arrests. In New York City, criminal justice observers say that stop and frisks are way down from their peak around 2010, but stops that now lead to marijuana possession violations still often lead to arrests on other charges.
“In 1977, when they originally ‘decriminalized’ marijuana, we thought all these arrests would stop, and they didn’t,” said Alyssa Aquilera, co-executive director of the group Vocal-NY, which advocates for the full legalization of marijuana.
Goodman, the Legal Aid attorney, says disorderly conduct stops – which are also for summonses and violations – often lead to criminal charges for resisting arrest or obstructing governmental administration, and “now that we have violations for marijuana, if the police are trying to enforce these violations, the same types of things could happen as have happened for many years with disorderly conduct violations.”
Black and Brown New Yorkers are still being arrested at much higher rates than whites. Even before the current law took effect, misdemeanor arrests have decreased, while violations have increased—and in both categories, intense racial disparities are the rule. In the first half of 2019, there were about 750 arrests for the soon-to-be-discontinued misdemeanor and 8,000 marijuana-related violations summonses. Around 90 percent were for people of color.
The New York Police Department says the top brass in all precincts have had in-person training and have circulated information to all officers, who have also been required to watch a training video on the NYPD’s online learning system.
“The legal changes that go into effect on Wednesday mirror the policy changes NYPD enacted a year ago, so the department is expecting a smooth transition for officers,” Sergeant Jessica McRorie, a department spokesperson, said by email.
Your previous run-ins with the law may still haunt you: Although marijuana-related violations will still show up in certain searches by prospective employers, landlords, and creditors, previous convictions under the old misdemeanor will not. Those records will now be sealed – and eventually either marked as expunged or destroyed.
"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," Melissa Moore, the deputy state director for Drug Policy Alliance New York told Gothamist last month. "[Legislators] were working really quickly at the end of session, frankly, and unfortunately it shows," she added.