On Monday, July 29 Governor Andrew Cuomo signed into law joint New York State Senate/Assembly legislation package S.6579A/A.8420, which effectively decriminalizes lower-level marijuana possession and usage in the state, and orders the dismissal or vacating of numerous current and past convictions. Here’s what you need to know.
The numerically named, fairly innocuous-sounding (if you ignore that pesky “420” that slipped in) legislation actually brings statewide statutes to parity with what the Westchester County instituted back in January: criminal possession of marijuana in the first degree (more than two ounces) will now be reduced to a violation from a misdemeanor, meaning violators will receive a fine of no more than $200 and no criminal record. Possession of under two ounces will not result in any criminal penalties whatsoever.
In a statement released by Gov. Cuomo’s office, Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins praised the change. “Decriminalizing marijuana is an essential part of reforming our state’s broken justice system. For too long, communities of color have been disproportionately targeted and negatively impacted.” She adds, “The Senate Democratic Majority will continue our efforts for full legalization and regulation of marijuana, and today’s decriminalization is a good first step.”
Echoing the majority leader’s sentiments, Gov. Cuomo is very direct about the reasoning behind this legislation. “Communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by laws governing marijuana for far too long,” he says. “Today we are ending this injustice once and for all.”
“By providing individuals who have suffered the consequences of an unfair marijuana conviction with a path to have their records expunged and by reducing draconian penalties, we are taking a critical step forward in addressing a broken and discriminatory criminal justice process.”
That is the big news. Not only will penalties for marijuana possession be reduced, but, as with Westchester’s legislation, those currently facing charges will likely see them dropped. Moreover, and in a sweeping declaration that outpaces even Westchester County’s policies, the new laws will order previous convictions vacated and the associated criminal records expunged, meaning the legal proceedings will be deemed nullified and invalid. Any documents will be sealed and will not appear in any public or private criminal background check or search, and by written request will be destroyed.
The mechanism for this process has not yet been determined, but the text of S.6579A indicated that it will fall to the office of New York State Chief Administrative Judge Lawrence K. Marks to alert “the Commissioner of the Division of Criminal Justice Services [DCJS] and the heads of all appropriate police departments and other law enforcement agencies” which counts have been dismissed or vacated.
Lucian Chalfen, Cirector of Public Information of the new York State unified Court System, speaking on behalf of the CAJ’s office, calls those two lines of text a “very involved legal process.”
“We are talking about hundreds of thousands if not a million criminal records to be removed from our database,” Chalfen says, adding. “Currently we do not have a method for expunging of criminal records. That would have to [be] developed in conjunction with DCJS, the state’s criminal records repository.”
“We are in the process of reviewing what the bill entails and have begun to address what new infrastructure will be necessary to comply with the statute,” he says.
It’s worth noting that S.6579A also alters the states definition of “smoking” to mean “the burning of a lighted cigar, cigarette, pipe or any other matter or substance which contains tobacco or marihuana.” While this seems trivial, by directly correlating marijuana and tobacco products, use of the former will now automatically be banned in any public or private establishment where tobacco smoking was previously prohibited.
Signed on Monday, July 29, the new regulations go into effect after 30 days, on August 29.