10,872 New Yorkers to See Their Marijuana Convictions Disappear

Even as states across the country have legalized marijuana, potentially opening the door to a multibillion dollar industry, the impact of marijuana criminalization is still being felt by people — mostly black and Hispanic — whose records are marked by low-level convictions related to the drug.
But on Wednesday, New York began the process of expunging many of those records, as part of a new state law to reduce penalties associated with marijuana-related crimes, a spokesman for Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo confirmed.
“For too long communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by laws governing marijuana and have suffered the lifelong consequences of an unfair marijuana conviction,” Mr. Cuomo said in a statement.
Under the new law, which was passed in June and took effect on Wednesday, 10,872 people in New York City will automatically have their records wiped clean of marijuana convictions, according to a spokeswoman for the State Division of Criminal Justice Services. In the rest of the state, an additional 13,357 people will see marijuana convictions cleared from their records, the spokeswoman said.
Sealing these records would ensure that a person’s marijuana-related conviction would not come up in most background checks, state officials said.
A method for expunging the records, which has never been done in New York, is still being developed, the officials said. The process could take up to a year, a spokesman for the State Office of Court Administration, Lucian Chalfen, said.
The Drug Policy Alliance, a nonprofit group, said the number of people who would have their records cleared could be many times higher than the number cited by the state; the alliance cited figures showing that between 1990 and 2018, 867,701 arrests were made in New York State for low-level marijuana offenses.
Under the new law, the classification of the penalty for possessing between one and two ounces of marijuana has been lowered to a violation, and fines have been capped at $200. Previously, such possession was a Class B misdemeanor. The fine for possessing less than one ounce of marijuana has been lowered to $50, from $150.
The move to reduce fines and clear people’s records has been embraced by advocates of criminal justice reform, many of whom said criminal penalties for using marijuana fell disproportionately on black and Hispanic residents.
Khalil A. Cumberbatch, an advocate who was pardoned by Mr. Cuomo in 2014 after serving time for a robbery conviction, said in a statement that expunging marijuana records “gives people a new lease on life, removing the suffocating stain of stigma that prevents so many from reaching their highest potential.”
State Senator Zellnor Myrie of Brooklyn, a co-sponsor of the bill, said he hoped lawmakers will build on this “first step.”
“I represent Brownsville; that was ground zero for a lot of this,” he said of marijuana enforcement. Expunging records “is just the beginning of the state recognizing the errors of that war.”
In February, a study from John Jay College found that “blacks and Hispanics consistently had higher rates of arrest for misdemeanor marijuana possession compared to whites.”
Kevin Sabet, director of Smart Approaches to Marijuana, an advocacy group, said he embraced expunging low-level offenses, but not full legalization.
“We don’t want people in prison for marijuana use,” Mr. Sabet said. “But the criminal sanctions on marijuana is not a reason to commercialize and normalize marijuana.”
Mr. Sabet said he wanted to see marijuana possession likened to driving over the speed limit. “It’s something discouraged,” he said, “but it’s not something that is going to destroy your life if you’re caught doing it.”
New York began decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana in 1977, one of the few states to take such a step at that time. In 2014, the state legalized a medicinal marijuana program with restrictions that reflected Mr. Cuomo’s apprehension toward the drug; for example, smoking and eating the drug are prohibited under that program.
Today, more than 30 states allow medical use of marijuana. Eleven states have legalized the adult use of marijuana. Last year, the district attorneys in Manhattan and Brooklyn stopped prosecuting cases of marijuana possession and smoking in public.

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