Earlier this month, newly released policing data showed that marijuana arrests were on the rise in New York City for the first time since 2011. The alarming revelation worsened once you drilled down into the numbers, demonstrating that in neighborhoods predominantly inhabited by people of color, weed possession arrests never really stopped being a problem.
Of the 22,000 New Yorkers who were arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana last year, 80% were either of Black or Hispanic descent. Studies continually show that cannabis use is widespread nationwide and usage rates are fairly even among all ethnic races in the United States.
In his 2017 State of the State address, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo vowed to right the ship and fully decriminalize marijuana, adding that he would do his part to rid the state of criminal penalties for petty cannabis offenses.
But preventing new arrests from taking place isn’t the only area of concern, as these seemingly frivolous charges end up wreaking havoc on a person’s life long term. Something needs to be done retroactively to assist these cannabis “offenders” in putting together the pieces of their life, shattered unnecessarily by a marijuana arrest that helps nobody except the for-profit prison system. Regardless of past promises for reform, the fact remains that over 800,000 New Yorkers have been locked behind bars for marijuana possession in the last 20 years.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said of marijuana possession arrests in 2014, “There have been, in some cases, disastrous consequences for individuals and families…It hurts their chances to get a good job, to get housing. It hurts their chances to qualify for a student loan; it can literally follow them the rest of their lives.”
While these words from Mayor de Blasio still ring true today, it was his city’s police department that contributed greatly in recent years to the epidemic New York finds itself in today.
“I think the fact that you will see fewer unnecessary arrests will be good for New York City as a whole. It will be good for New Yorkers of color and young people of color—there is no question about that,” de Blasio added. “We’ll see how the numbers come out over time but there’s no doubt in my mind it will be a very substantial impact. And for a lot of young people it means they will not have this reality holding them back; a summons is not going to affect their future. An arrest, could. And we want to avoid that unnecessary burden.”
Now, the New York State Assembly has passed new legislation that aims to backup Governor Cuomo’s promise to rectify the dire situation. Yesterday, the Assembly voted in strong favor of Bill A.2142, which will seal the permanent criminal record of any person who has been “unjustly and unconstitutionally arrested for simple possession of marijuana in public view.” According to a statement from the Drug Policy Alliance, the measure passed by a vote of 95-38.
“I introduced the marijuana sealing bill because drug laws have created a permanent underclass of people unable to find jobs after a conviction,” said Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo, NY Assembly-member. “One of the most damaging issues derived from the war on drugs is that the policies are inherently racist. Communities of color have been devastated by bad drug policies and hyper-criminalization for the last 40 years. It is an approach that has never worked and has caused significantly more harm than good to our communities and to our families. If today’s moment of increased attention to heroin encourages us to center public health in our drug policy, then we need to ensure that we are making amends to communities of color by alleviating the burden bad policies have had on their lives. Sealing low-level marijuana possession convictions is the first step to reintegrating thousands of New Yorkers who are inhibited daily from accessing employment, housing and an education all due to a conviction on their record for simple possession of marijuana.”
One pressing matter that may have added increased pressure to pass retroactive cannabis legislation could be the looming immigration guidelines. New York, a state rich in immigrant culture, knows that marijuana possession is one of the four most common reasons for deportation among illegal aliens. As ICE raids abound and immigrants no longer enjoy the same sort of protections they thought were standard, many feared that old possession arrests would be used as justification for deportation. If marijuana arrests are sealed and therefore invisible to immigration authorities, deportation is far more difficult to execute as there is no conviction to get them flagged in the first place.
“A marijuana conviction can lead to devastating consequences for immigrants, including detention and deportation,” explained Alisa Wellek, Executive Director of the Immigrant Defense Project. “This bill will provide some important protections for green card holders and undocumented New Yorkers targeted by Trump’s aggressive deportation agenda.”
The issue will now move to the State Senate, where a companion bill (S.3809) will have until the current session concludes on June 21 to get approved. Passing this bill would prove that New York lawmakers not only want to get cannabis regulation right in the future, but amend the wrongs of their past as well.
“In New York State 22,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2016. The misdemeanor charge for public view of marijuana possession gives those people convicted a criminal record that will follow them throughout their lives, potentially limiting their access to education, affecting their ability to obtain employment, leading to a potential inability to provide for their families,” said Senator Jamaal Bailey, who is sponsoring the Senate bill. “Furthermore, and even more problematic, there exist significant racial disparities in the manner that marijuana possession policy is enforced. Blacks and Latinos are arrested at higher rates despite the fact that white people use marijuana at higher rates than people of color. Responsible and fair policy is what we need here and this bill will do just that. I am proud to sponsor this legislation with Assembly-member Peoples-Stokes and commend her for taking initiative on this issue. We must act now, with proactive legislation, for the future of many young men and women of our State are at stake here.”
Cover Image Courtesy of Aidan Wakely-Mulroney