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NY Further Decriminalizes Marijuana Possession, Expands Gun Restrictions

NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo
NY Gov. Andrew Cuomo

Governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday signed legislation that further decriminalizes marijuana possession in New York. The law ends criminal prosecution for possession of up to 2 ounces of cannabis. The action comes on a day when the governor also signed new gun control measures into law.

Under the law, possession of up to one ounce of the drug would be punishable by a $50 fine. Having up to two ounces of cannabis would bring a $200 fine. The measure also creates a mechanism to expunge the records for some past marijuana convictions.   

Emma Goodman, with the Legal Aid Society of New York, says the measure is a step forward to helping communities of color that have been disproportionately targeted by the state’s marijuana laws, but it falls short.  

“I don’t think it’s going to make a big enough difference,” said Goodman. “I do think that people who have been harmed by the era of broken windows policing will be somewhat affected by it in a positive way, because there are people who have a bunch of low-level marijuana convictions that they won’t have any more.” 

Melissa Moore, with the Drug Policy Alliance, says the new law does go far enough to address what she says are the “collateral consequences” of decades of marijuana criminalization that adversely affect African American and Latinx communities. She says the new law does not prohibit police from making arrests if they catch someone possessing marijuana.  

“They can continue to face parole and probation violations for marijuana, they can keep being separated from their children,” Moore said. “People can still continue to face immigration consequences for marijuana arrests, which is a huge concern in this moment.”

The Drug Policy Alliance, Legal Aid Society and other advocates say they will continue to press lawmakers to legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana. They were unable to get enough votes in the state Senate for passage this year. But Moore, with the Drug Policy Alliance, says polls show support among New Yorkers for legalization and she hopes to have more success in the 2020 legislative session.  

“It’s an incredibly popular issue across the state,” said Moore, who said there is support even in districts where majority party Democratic legislators might face a close reelection next year.  

“People who were likely 2020 voters in those districts were actually more likely to support a candidate that had supported marijuana regulation,” Moore said. “So absolutely, we'll be back.”  

Cuomo also signed gun control measures approved by the legislature last January. One requires a 30-day waiting period for a gun sale, if the purchaser is flagged in an initial background check. 

The Senate sponsor of the measure, Senate Deputy Majority Leader Michael Gianaris, spoke on the floor when the bill was passed. 

“The FBI itself says on average it takes about 20 to 25 days for a background check that has been flagged to be completed,” Gianaris said. “This is the most common sense of common sense proposals.” 

Another measure outlaws the possession and transport of so-called bump stocks, devices that further accelerate the speed of semi-automatic weapons and that have been used in prior mass shootings.  

The action comes one day after a shooting at a California food festival that killed three people, including a six-year-old boy and 13-year-old girl.  

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