This week, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo announced plans to reduce the number of low-level cannabis arrests in his state. It is unclear if this will have a significant impact on how marijuana is regulated in the United States, but it marks a promising change for legislation that has long been dominated by outdated policies and enforcement practices.

NY used to arrest thousands for marijuana each year. Now? Hardly anybody



Look no farther than the criminal justice system in New York to see how quickly its marijuana laws were changed.

In New York, less and fewer individuals are being arrested for marijuana infractions, highlighting the enormous impact of the drug’s decriminalization in 2019 and, eventually, legalization in March. 

According to statistics gathered by the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, just 116 persons were arrested statewide on a top-level misdemeanor or felony charge connected to marijuana possession or sale from April to October this year.

According to the state Department of Correction and Community Supervision, 11 persons remained detained in state prisons as of early October, with a top offence of either illegal sale or possession of marijuana in the first, second, or third degree. 

A top charge is the most serious crime for which someone has been arrested.

As state legislators and then-Gov. Andrew Cuomo altered the state’s marijuana laws, the number of arrests dropped dramatically.

There were 2,720 misdemeanor and felony marijuana arrests in New York in 2020, after legislators made efforts to reduce marijuana penalties but before legalizing limited quantities of the drug.

According to a research conducted by the John Jay College of Criminal Justice, there were 28,239 misdemeanor marijuana arrests in 2017. 

The data, according to advocates, show that the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, which was enacted by Cuomo and legislators in March and allows for adult use of recreational marijuana in the state, was a success in putting social justice front and center.

The legislation allows citizens of New York to instantly possess up to three ounces of marijuana and will ultimately enable them to cultivate marijuana plants at home for recreational purposes. However, selling cannabis without a valid license is still prohibited.

Previously, in 2019, legislators decided to downgrade many marijuana offenses to violations, which usually result in a ticket.

However, campaigners caution that the state’s arrest figures may not reflect the entire scope of marijuana prohibition, since individuals may face additional crimes if marijuana is present. 

The lowered arrest rates, according to Mary Kruger, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana, are a sign that the legislation is having the desired effect.

She went on to say that one of the reasons why proponents worked so hard to get this law approved was because they didn’t want the negative consequences of prohibition to be overlooked, as they had been in some other states.

“But it was always at the forefront of our legislation,” she continued, “and it was a non-negotiable to have this be something that was included.”

How New York’s Marijuana Law Has Changed

The legislation permitted individuals over the age of 21 to carry, exhibit, and consume three ounces of marijuana when it passed in March.

The new legislation is projected to allow more than 100,000 individuals to have their former records wiped. The Office of Court Administration has up to two years to finish the assignment, but in the meanwhile, documents are being concealed. 

The legislation also establishes a goal of giving 50 percent of licenses to social equity applicants, such as handicapped veterans, women, and people of color who have been disproportionately disadvantaged by the drug war.

It also eliminates the presence of cash near cannabis and the order of cannabis as a plausible cause for a crime to have happened.

When examining whether a person is driving while impaired by drugs or alcohol, law enforcement authorities may still utilize the stench of smoked cannabis. However, those police are still unable to check a part of the car that is “readily accessible to the driver” based on the scent of cannabis.

Possession of more than three ounces of cannabis is likewise a violation punishable by a fine, according to the legislation. Charges like first-degree criminal possession, which requires the accused to have more over 10 pounds on them, are still considered felonies. 

Realizing ‘legalization’s promises’

Clemency and commuting should be considered for the 11 individuals still imprisoned in New York on marijuana-related convictions to “fulfill some of the promises of legalization,” according to Natalie Papillion, policy adviser and head of strategic initiatives at the Last Prisoner’s Project.

According to its website, the initiative began in 2019 with the goal that “no one should stay jailed for cannabis charges.” 

“Some of those 11 persons, or maybe more,” Papillion said, “may be eligible for relief or release once the re-sentencing rules take effect.” “There are a handful of different ways we can effectively halt cannabis-related imprisonment in New York in the short future,” he says. 

According to DOCCS, the 11 people were sentenced under Penal Code 221, a tougher marijuana legislation that has since been abolished. This year, four of those persons were sentenced. 

Some persons convicted of marijuana crimes may be eligible for re-sentencing under the MRTA, especially if they were convicted of a charge that is no longer considered unlawful. 

According to Joseph Bondy, a criminal defense and cannabis business attorney in New York City, few individuals go to jail for cannabis because they generally plead down to a lesser felony. 

Arrests, according to Bondy, are a better indicator of the impact a marijuana violation may have on a person’s life. 

Arrests are also included in this category. According to data, when New York City’s cannabis legislation was established in the first quarter of this year, police made roughly 160 marijuana arrests. There were roughly 25 marijuana arrests in the third quarter, up from eight in the second. 

Despite the fact that criminal marijuana rules have been loosened, Bondy is concerned that individuals will continue to be arrested for marijuana-related crimes. Consequently, even if the individual is not charged with a marijuana infraction, there may be further tax, business, and organizational charges. 

“As a result, there will be a lot more marijuana convictions for various reasons,” he said. “Your government is not going to give up.” 

“They’re not simply throwing in the towel,” he continued.  

The marijuana law, according to Bondy, is a watershed event. And that many of his former criminal clientele are now looking for new chances in the legitimate sector.

“It’s amazing,” he remarked, describing the turn of events. 

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