Social Justice A Key Component in Decriminalizing Marijuana in New York

New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo has signed a bill that decriminalizes marijuana use in the state. As part of the new law, thousands may get their criminal arrest record expunged from state records.

The move is part of the social justice component that has become a component of marijuana legalization in many places. In addition to decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana today, many laws also are retroactively wiping arrests off the books from the past.

The decision to decriminalize came after New York lawmakers failed to reach an agreement on legalizing recreational cannabis earlier this year. The change in the law is expected to go into effect in 30 days.

Why Expunging Records Is An Issue

Studies have shown that the War on Drugs has hit people of color the hardest. For example, black Americans began to overrepresented in juvenile court cases after the War on Drugs began, according to a study in the Johns Hopkins University Press. Other studies have found a higher proportion of black citizens arrested than white citizens, even though marijuana usage is about the same in both ethnic groups.

In signing the bill, Cuomo said in a statement that “communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by laws governing marijuana for far too long, and today we are ending this injustice once and for all.”

He said decriminalization will reduce “draconian penalties” and address “a broken and discriminatory criminal justice process.”

A similar measure was part of the effort to decriminalize marijuana possession in Hawaii that legislators approved earlier this year. The measure became law in July.

New York is the 26th state to decriminalize cannabis. Cuomo has been advocating for decriminalization since 2013.

What the Law Does

The bill signed by the governor changes the law in two significant ways in addition to expunging past criminal records.

  • Reduces unlawful possession of marijuana penalties to a violation punishable by a fine
  • Removes criminal penalties for possession of fewer than two ounces of marijuana

The move makes New York the 27th state to decriminalize marijuana.

Meanwhile, lawmakers have proposed laws that would decriminalize marijuana at the national level. Sen. Kamala Harris of California and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler of New York have introduced a bill that decriminalizes cannabis nationally and expunges previous convictions.

The bill would also place a 5% federal tax on marijuana sales. That money would create a fund that is used to help those convicted of marijuana possession in the past through federal grants. The grants would provide support in areas such as job training, legal aid and rehabilitation

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