New York: Elected Officials, Community Groups Announce Legislation To End Racist Marijuana Arrests


Comprehensive Legislation would also Address Racial Bias, Collateral Consequences, and Fix Loopholes in NY Marijuana Laws

Despite Dramatic Drop in Stop and Frisk, NYPD on Track to Arrest as Many People in 2014 as Previous Year... and Racial Disparities Persist

Elected officials, community members and the coalition, New Yorkers for Public Health & Safety, will rally on Wednesday, July 9, on the Steps of New York City Hall, to call for comprehensive reform to address racially biased marijuana arrests and devastating collateral consequences.

Last year, there were nearly 30,000 marijuana possession arrests in New York City alone. Based on first-quarter data obtained from the state Division of Criminal Justice Services, the NYPD is now on track to make nearly as many marijuana possession arrests in 2014 as it did in 2013, with similarly shocking racial disparities.

Proposals to fix New York’s marijuana possession law have stalled in Albany the past few years. With the continued staggering racial disparities and Governor Cuomo’s recommitment to ending marijuana arrests, Assembly member Camara and Senator Squadron along with community members and advocates are calling for reforms that not only end racially bias marijuana arrests but also address the racial bias in the NY criminal justice system and deal with the devastating collateral consequences of these racially biased arrests.

What Does the Fairness and Equity Act Do?

1. End the racially biased and unlawful arrests of tens of thousands of New Yorkers every year by fixing the law regarding possession of small amounts of marijuana.

In 1977, New York decriminalized private marijuana possession, making it a violation, not a criminal offense (a misdemeanor), but public possession of marijuana was made a misdemeanor. The difference in public/private penalties established a loophole in the law and confusion among law enforcement, and leading to New York becoming the marijuana arrest capital of the world.

Approximately 86 percent of those arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana are Black and Latino – mostly young men -- despite government studies that consistently show that young white men use marijuana at higher rates. Indeed, in New York City, if this trend continues, NYPD is on track to make as many or more marijuana possession arrests in 2014 as they did in 2013. This bill would standardize the penalty for public and private possession of small amounts of marijuana – possession of small amounts of marijuana would remain illegal, and those violating the law would face a violation and possible fine.

2. Create a process for those who have been unlawfully arrested for possessing small amounts of marijuana to clear their records.

Over the last 20 years, approximately 600,000 New Yorkers have been arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana – the vast majority of those arrested had never before been in trouble with the law. The human and fiscal costs of these arrests are staggering.

Those arrested are saddled with a criminal record that can follow them for the rest of their lives – easily found on the internet by banks, schools, employers, landlords, and licensing boards. Elected officials from President Obama to New York Governor Cuomo acknowledge that marijuana arrests are racially biased, predominantly impact low-income people, and are a waste of finite law enforcement resources. This provision will allow those people who were victims of New York’s broken marijuana policies to vacate – and clear – their record.

3. Reduce the harms of collateral consequences resulting from marijuana possession arrests.

Marijuana possession arrest cause tremendous harm. Nurses, security guards, and others licensed by the state can lose their licenses and their jobs from just one misdemeanor marijuana arrest.

For immigrants, two guilty pleas to misdemeanor marijuana possession can lead to deportation, and one guilty plea can bar someone from ever returning to the U.S. Family court can remove children from a home because a parent is convicted or just arrested for marijuana possession.

A person cannot be considered for public housing with an "open criminal case," including the typical probation for a first arrest for marijuana possession. This bill will provide judicial flexibility to grant adjournment in contemplation of dismal instead of a guilty plea for a marijuana possession offense if a judge deems appropriate.

4. Standardize the time for sealing a marijuana possession conviction from three years to one year, aligning the waiting period for record sealing with all other violation level offenses.

5. Establish a process to utilize racial/ethnic impact statements for future legislation that modifies New York's penal code.

Much like environmental and fiscal impact statements, racial/ethnic impact statements help inform legislators before a bill has passed, how proposed legislation may serve to exacerbate racial/ethnic disparities in our criminal justice system.

6. Fix the definition of what constitutes a “sale” of marijuana.

Under the current law, people who share a joint are considered drug dealers. The Equity Act fixes this provision in the law. Possessing or sharing marijuana would remain illegal, whereas only those individuals who actually sold marijuana would be charged with a criminal sales offense.