New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo Signs Cannabis Decriminalization Bill

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New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo. Photo Credit: Richard Drew/AP/Shutterstock
July 29, 2019

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill on Monday expanding cannabis decriminalization in the Empire State. Cannabis advocates and legalization opponents, alike, are celebrating the move as a victory.

"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," Cuomo said in a statement. "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."

The legislation, passed by the state legislature in June, will reduce the penalty for possession of cannabis under 2 ounces. Possession of 1 ounce or less will incur a $50 fine, whereas possession of 2 ounces ー once a criminal misdemeanor ー will now incur a $200 fine. The penalty for public use has also been reduced to a fine-only offense, down from a criminal misdemeanor. The bill will also establish a new procedure for automatic expungement of cannabis-related convictions for possession of 25 grams of cannabis or less. According to the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML), a cannabis advocacy organization, hundreds of thousands of New York residents will be eligible for expungement under the new rules, which will go into effect Aug. 28.

Assembly Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes praised Cuomo.

"For too long communities of color have been the target of discriminatory criminal justice policies and have suffered serious consequences for the possession of small amounts of marijuana, while others were never arrested or charged. By decriminalizing marijuana use in New York once and for all, we are ending this repressive cycle that unfairly targets certain communities. I thank the Governor for signing this bill and for taking this critical step forward in the name of equality," she said in a statement.

Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins in a statement called Cuomo's move "a good first step" along the path toward "full legalization and regulation of marijuana."

Carly Wolf, state policies coordinator for pro-legalization activist organization NORML mirrored Stewart-Cousins language, calling the development "a step in the right direction."

"Many New Yorkers, a disproportionate number of whom are black and brown, who regularly feel the burden of a prior conviction will finally be able to find relief and get their lives back," she said in a statement.

Twice in 2019, New York tried and failed to legalize recreational cannabis. In March, Cuomo pulled a marijuana bill from the state budget. In late June, legalization efforts failed again due to lack of sufficient support in the state Senate. Some major points of contention among lawmakers and activists included concerns about local opt-out provisions, how to handle tax revenue, and worries over drugged driving ー an issue championed by anti-legalization group, Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM).

SAM, too, framed the move as a win insofar as it represented "an alternative to opening New York’s communities to Big Marijuana."