Advocates and legislators held a press conference on Tuesday in Albany, N.Y., to demand reprieve for the harm that has been caused by past marijuana convictions and mobilize for legislative solutions to keep New York families together.
New York’s marijuana arrest crusade began more than 20 years ago. Since then, police departments across the state have arrested more than 800,000 New Yorkers for low-level marijuana possession offenses. In 2016, more than 22,000 New Yorkers were arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana – 80 percent of whom were black or Latino.
What’s worse, many of these arrests were the product of an unconstitutional stop. Once convicted, a permanent record can follow these mostly young people of color for the rest of their lives – a record easily found by banks, schools, employers, landlords, and licensing boards. Today, thousands of New Yorkers are still being burdened by these arrests even after the Governor and law enforcement officials admitted they were wrong.
Recently, the New York State Assembly passed a landmark piece of legislation to provide some reprieve for those who have been most criminalized in our state. The responsibility for pushing this bill forward now falls to the Senate and the Governor, who have an opportunity to right a wrong by sealing these arrests.
Said N.Y. Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes:
“I introduced the marijuana sealing bill because drug laws have created a permanent underclass of people unable to find jobs after a conviction. 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.”
This sealing legislation has also taken on increased importance amid the Trump Administration’s rhetoric and actions targeting immigrant communities. Simple marijuana possession is the fourth most common cause of deportation at the national level, and sealing records will provide a measure of protection for non-citizens by making it difficult or impossible for immigration authorities to meet their legal burden of proof for a judge to find a lawful permanent resident deportable.
“A marijuana conviction can lead to devastating consequences for immigrants, including detention and deportation,” said 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.”
New York State first decriminalized personal marijuana possession in 1977, recognizing the harmful impact an arrest could have on young people. Although New York officials, including Governor Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio, have previously recognized these arrests as ineffective, unjust, and racially discriminatory, they still continue across the state because of a loophole in the law. In 2016 more than 22,000 New Yorkers were arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana 80 percent of whom were black or Latino.
Governor Cuomo proposed closing this loophole as part of his State of the State 2017, citing the damaging collateral consequences. As policymakers acknowledge that these arrests are unjust and should not take place in the future, they must simultaneously focus on repairing the harm for people burdened by a criminal record from such an arrest.
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The discriminatory practices are statewide. For example, in the city of Buffalo in Erie County, African Americans represent 70 percent of the marijuana arrests – despite only being 38.6 percent of the population, and using marijuana at similar rates as other groups.
Once convicted, a permanent record can follow these mostly young people of color for the rest of their lives – a record easily found by banks, schools, employers, landlords, and licensing boards.
“New York must repair the harms of our racially biased marijuana laws and sealing low-level marijuana convictions is a step in the right direction. Thank you to the New York State Assembly for recognizing that a permanent criminal record is an out-sized burden for low-level marijuana possession and that allowing sealing for these convictions will allow New Yorkers to avoid job loss, eviction, and a host of unnecessary collateral consequences.” Alyssa Aguilera, Co-Executive Director, VOCAL-NY.
Increasingly, jurisdictions and legislators across the country are realizing that marijuana prohibition has been ineffective, unjust, and racially discriminatory, and are working to implement regulatory systems that are fair and effective. In New York, Assembly members recognize that, at a minimum, people should not be saddled with a permanent criminal record simply for possession of small amount of marijuana.
Advocates now look to the Senate to quickly pass the Senate companion bill (S.3809) sponsored by Senator Jamaal Bailey before the session ends on June 21, and to begin to repair the harm done by marijuana prohibition to communities across the state. Governor Cuomo also has a unique opportunity to address the harms that these arrests have caused by enacting sealing for marijuana possession arrests as part of his decriminalization proposal in the state budget legislation. Such a move would show his commitment to communities that have borne the harshest brunt of racial profiling and those currently most vulnerable under Trump’s executive orders.
“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.
“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 Assemblymember 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.”
Senator Jesse Hamilton said, “Any one of the more than 22,000 arrests made in our state last year over misdemeanor marijuana possession could snowball into the nightmare of losing one’s job, losing a license used to make a living – to be a nurse, a home health aide, or a security guard – or for immigrants, losing the ability to remain in our country. All that stands alongside stigma and other consequences. This legislation is an important part of tackling that current, overly punitive approach. Steps like this one move us toward the wiser, more humane approach New Yorkers deserve.”
Assemblymember Luis Sepúlveda stated, “I find the current hypocritical situation in regard to possession of minor amounts of marijuana both wasteful and shameful. Wasteful because the cases only take police away from more important law enforcement and clog our court system, with most cases either thrown out or reduced. Shameful that too many young people, the overwhelming majority of them black and Hispanic arrested for the first time, find themselves branded with criminal records that can affect their ability to get a student loan, a job, or an apartment.
It has become increasingly evident, as a number of states across the nation legalize the possession of minor amounts of marijuana, that New York, supposedly one of the more enlightened states in the nation, remains the marijuana arrest capital of the world, despite decriminalization of private marijuana possession, with many of the arrests the result of illegal searches and false charges. It is time to end this farce, beginning with sealing the court records of thousands of individuals caught up in this hypocritical, racially biased situation. Let us apply some common sense here.”
“Criminal records based on unequally enforced statutes are a part of an unjust justice system,” said Senator Daniel Squadron. “Senator Bailey’s bill is an important part of increasing fairness in the justice system, along with my Fairness and Equity Act, which would also decriminalize small amounts of marijuana and better track bias in the law. Thank you to Senator Bailey, Assemblymember Peoples-Stokes, the Drug Policy Alliance, VOCAL-NY, Immigration Defense Project, advocates, and the community.”
Kassandra Frederique, New York State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance said, “Sealing past illegitimate marijuana convictions is not only right, it is most urgent as the country moves toward legalization and immigrant families are put at risk under our new federal administration. Comprehensive drug law reform must include legislative and programmatic measures that account for our wrongheaded policies and invest in building healthier and safer communities, from the Bronx to Buffalo, Muslim and Christian, US-born and green card-holding.”