New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D) signed a bill on Monday further decriminalizing marijuana possession and enabling those with prior cannabis convictions to have their records expunged.
The law, which takes effect in 30 days, will make it so that possession of up to two ounces of marijuana is punishable by a $50-$200 fine with no jail time. Cuomo said the state’s existing cannabis policy has disproportionately impacted communities of color and, with the signing of the legislation, “we are ending this injustice once and for all.”
“By providing individuals who have suffered the consequences of an unfair marijuana conviction with a path to have their records expunged and by reducing draconian penalties, we are taking a critical step forward in addressing a broken and discriminatory criminal justice process,” he said in a press release.
I just signed legislation decriminalizing marijuana use in New York & creating a process for expunging past convictions.
Communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by laws governing marijuana for far too long, and today we are ending this injustice. pic.twitter.com/PBSXWbQtiW
— Andrew Cuomo (@NYGovCuomo) July 29, 2019
While reform advocates celebrated the development, it’s not the comprehensive legalization bill that many hoped would pass before the end of the legislative session. Cuomo, who included legalization in his budget proposal and negotiated with lawmakers throughout the year to get a bill to his desk, ultimately said a deal couldn’t be reached in time.
Debates over how to allocate tax revenue from cannabis sales and whether to allow individual jurisdictions to opt out of allowing marijuana businesses operate were two major issues that derailed the legalization push.
Decriminalization expansion proved easier to accomplish, with the Senate and Assembly approving the legislation in the closing hours of the session last month.
Sen. Jamaal Bailey (D), sponsor of the bill, said that creating a “mechanism for expungement, both retroactively and forward-looking, is a step in the right direction in finally ending the heavy-handed war on drugs that has decimated communities of color.”
Providing for expungements was a top priority for legalization advocates, who argued that establishing a legal cannabis market that would create economic opportunities would have to be accompanied by a pathway to clear records for those with past marijuana convictions.
“This law is an important step in righting decades of injustice caused by the state’s current drug laws,” Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie (D) said. “Decriminalizing marijuana and expunging records for those with low level offenses will go a long way towards helping our communities, and especially people of color, who have been devastated by them.”
“By removing the barriers and stigma that come with these records, we clear the path for many New Yorkers to find a job, housing and go on to live successful and productive lives,” he said.
Kevin Sabet, president of the prohibitionist group Smart Approaches to Marijuana (SAM), said the legislation isn’t “perfect,” but there’s “no use making perfect the enemy of good.”
Not a perfect bill, but no use making perfect the enemy of good.
— Kevin Sabet (@KevinSabet) July 29, 2019
“This is common sense legislation we are proud of,” he said, arguing that SAM contributed to the defeat of marijuana legalization in the state while holding up decrim expansion as an alternative.
Sen. Diane Savino (D), a longtime champion of cannabis reform, responded to the bill’s signing by stating that decriminalization is just “[s]light progress… cause you are still buying it from criminals, just sayin.”
Slight progress…cause you are still buying it from criminals, just sayin’
— Senator Diane Savino (@dianesavino) July 29, 2019
Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins (D) said that decriminalization “is an essential part of reforming our state’s broken justice system.”
“For too long, communities of color have been disproportionately targeted and negatively impacted,” she said. “The Senate Democratic Majority will continue our efforts for full legalization and regulation of marijuana, and today’s decriminalization is a good first step.”
Assembly Majority Leader Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes (D) said that people of color “have been the target of discriminatory criminal justice policies and have suffered serious consequences for the possession of small amounts of marijuana, while others were never arrested or charged.”
“By decriminalizing marijuana use in New York once and for all, we are ending this repressive cycle that unfairly targets certain communities,” she said.
By decriminalizing Marijuana use in New York once and for all, we are ending this repressive cycle that unfairly targets certain communities. I thank @NYGovCuomo for signing this bill and for taking this critical step forward in the name of equality!
— CrystalPeoplesStokes (@CPeoplesStokes) July 29, 2019
Efforts to legalize cannabis also stalled and failed in neighboring New Jersey this year, with lawmakers stating that the issue would be left up to voters as a 2020 ballot measure. In Illinois, meanwhile, Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) made good on his campaign promise and signed a legalization bill last month.
Missouri Activists Take Steps To Put Marijuana Legalization Initiative On November Ballot
Missouri activists are gearing up for a push to put marijuana legalization on the state’s November ballot.
A proposed constitutional amendment to legalize for adult use, which was submitted last year, has been cleared for signature gathering by the secretary of state, which certified the ballot title last month.
The initiative, which the campaign Missourians for a New Approach is backing and the national New Approach PAC is funding, would allow adults 21 and older to possess and purchase up to one ounce of cannabis from licensed retailers. Individuals would also be able to cultivate up to three plants for personal use.
A 15 percent excise tax would be imposed on recreational marijuana sales, with revenue going toward veterans’ services, infrastructure and substance misuse treatment. According to a fiscal analysis, Missouri stands to bring in $86 million to $155 million in revenue annually by 2025.
The costs of implementation is estimated to be about $21 million initially, then decreasing to $6 million annually.
The proposal would also allow individuals with prior cannabis convictions to apply for resentencing or expungements.
“Missourians for a New Approach, in collaboration with New Approach PAC, is exploring the initiative petition process right now to determine the feasibility of allowing Missourians to vote on this important issue this year,” campaign manager John Payne told the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.
“There is widespread support among Missouri voters to regulate, tax and legalize marijuana,” he said. “The status quo has allowed an unsafe and unregulated black market to thrive in Missouri, while wasting law enforcement resources that would be better spent fighting serious and violent crimes.”
The campaign will face a challenge if they ultimately begin signature gathering, as organizers must deliver about 160,000 signatures by mid-May.
Under the proposal, the state’s Department of Health and Senior Services would be responsible for regulating the market and issuing licenses for cultivation facilities, retailers, testing laboratories and social consumption sites.
Marijuana products that are sold must be manufactured in Missouri, but text of the initiative also contains provisions stating that if federal laws change, regulators can change the rules to allow for cannabis imports and exports, provided any products that come into the state are subject to testing requirements.
The initiative also contains a series of restrictions, including banning billboard advertising in certain areas and selling marijuana edibles that appeal to children, prohibiting shops from publicly displaying their products and disallowing individuals with disqualifying felony convictions on their records from owning cannabis businesses (except for marijuana offenses or non-violent offenses that didn’t result in incarceration and are at least five years old).
Local governments would be able to temporarily prohibit recreational cannabis businesses from operating in their jurisdictions up until the next general election following Election Day 2020. After that point, local governments could only impose a ban through voter approval of ballot measures.
Missouri voters approved a medical cannabis ballot measure in 2018 by a two-to-one margin. It was one of three medical legalization initiatives to make it on the ballot that year—a situation that could repeat itself this November, as there’s a separate adult-use legalization proposal that was submitted to the secretary of state on Thursday that’s available for public comment.
The state Department of Health and Senior Services would have to approve at least as many recreational cultivation facilities and retailers as there are medical cannabis operations in the state. If the number of applications exceeds the department’s licensing cap, it would have to develop a grading system to score and select the winners.
Microbusiness licensees would be allowed to be vertically integrated, and owners could cultivate up to 150 flowering plants at a time. In order to qualify for a microbusiness license, the majority owner or owners would have to be economically disadvantaged or disabled veterans.
For the first year following implementation, licenses could only be approved for individuals who’ve lived in Missouri for at least a year prior to submitting an application.
The regulating agency would have to provide applications for licenses within nine months of the law’s effective date, which would be December 3, 2020 if voters approve the ballot question. Applications would have to be accepted within one year, and the department would have six months to either approve or reject the submissions.
The proposal also includes provisions concerning the state’s existing medical cannabis program. It stipulates that documents obtained from medical cannabis businesses licensees or applications are subject to state transparency laws. Additionally, the state’s medical marijuana law would be amended to extend the amount of time that cannabis patient recommendations are valid and due for renewal from one to three years.
If the campaign is successful, Missouri would join a growing number of states where cannabis reform will go before voters in November. Already, a medical marijuana initiative has qualified in Mississippi, South Dakota voters will see both medical cannabis and adult-use legalization on the ballot and the New Jersey legislature approved a resolution to let voters decide on recreational legalization.
Read the full Missouri marijuana legalization initiative below:
Photo courtesy of WeedPornDaily.
Joe Biden Again Says No To Marijuana Legalization Without More Studies
Former Vice President Joe Biden reaffirmed that he’s opposed to legalizing marijuana without further studying its potential health risks.
In an interview with The New York Times editorial board that was published on Friday, the 2020 Democratic presidential candidate was asked to explain his “more moderate approach” to cannabis policy when nearly all of his primary opponents, as well as the public, have embraced broad legalization.
“Because I think science matters,” he said. “I mean one of the reasons I’m running against the guy I’m running against is science matters, not fiction.”
He also said that he’s not arguing that marijuana is a gateway drug—something he did indicate might be the case last year, though he walked it back after facing pushback and being attacked for the statement on a debate stage.
“What I’m arguing is there have been studies showing that it complicates other problems if you already have a problem with certain drugs,” Biden said. “So we should just study it and decriminalize it, but study it and find out. Get the medical community to come up with a final definitive answer as to whether or not it does cause it. If it does cause other problems, then make it clear to people. So that’s a place you don’t not engage in the use of it.”
The former vice president’s marijuana reform plan involves rescheduling the plant to make it easier for researchers to access, decriminalizing simple possession and expunging prior cannabis records.
A member of the Times editorial board noted that marijuana is legal in some form in a majority of states, to which Biden said, “Sure they have. I get that, but that doesn’t mean the science shouldn’t be looked at.”
The former vice president has previously said that states should be able to implement their own legalization laws without federal interference.
Asked whether he’d support legalizing cannabis while simultaneously encouraging research into it, the candidate said “no.”
“Why would you promote the science if the science would say it’d be a bad idea to legalize it? You’ve got to find out the facts first,” he said.
“But by the way, let’s get something straight here. I’ve argued for some time total decriminalization. Anyone who has a record, it should be immediately expunged. So when you come to work for The New York Times, and they ask you if you have any problems, any criminal arrests, you don’t have to say yes, because it will be completely expunged. And in fact, there should be anyone who is in fact, has been served any time in prison or is in prison, which a few people are these days, that they immediately be released, and the record totally expunged.”
Earlier in the interview, Biden was asked to reflect on “anything that you have changed your mind about,” and he brought up his record on criminal justice reform—particularly his role in crafting punitive anti-drug laws aimed at crack cocaine as a senator during the Reagan administration.
“I made a big mistake in the criminal justice side when I—it’s easy to forget it now—but when, all of a sudden, crack was introduced as a great threat to the United States of America,” he said.
“And you had medical folks at the time saying, well, crack, because it immediately penetrates the membrane of the brain and it goes straight to the brain, it’s going to have this long-term effect,” he continued. “So we bought on to the idea that crack somehow should be punished much more significantly than, in fact, powdered cocaine. Well, what it meant was somebody snorting powder in the party you guys go to.”
Under the Anti Drug Abuse Act that Biden helped draft and was an original cosponsor for, crack offenses were made 100 times more severe than powder cocaine, leading to rampant racial disparities in the criminal justice system.
“But it’s put a lot of people in jeopardy, put them in jail, and it’s had a disproportionate impact on minority communities, particularly African-American communities. I sorely regret that,” he said, adding that while serving as vice president under President Obama, he advocated for legislation that reduced the sentencing disparity somewhat.
“We’ve also learned a lot more about drug abuse overall. It used to be that we thought—I’ve spent a lot of my career in the Judiciary Committee dealing with this issue,” he said. “We used to argue—and you tell me when I’m going longer than I should—we used to deal with it in terms of we thought that mental illness was a product of drug abuse. It’s the reverse. Mental illness is the reason for drug abuse. It’s not the reverse.”
“And that’s why, when I wrote the crime bill that everybody for a while there thought that was a massive reason for massive incarceration, which it wasn’t, I might add,” he said. “But what happened was I put in that bill, at the time, drug courts to try to divert anyone arrested for a drug offense to a drug court for rehab, not to go to jail.”
Photo courtesy of Flickr/Marc Nozell.
Marijuana Record Expungement Movement Growing Rapidly, Report Shows
Though eleven states and Washington, D.C. have legalized recreational marijuana, the process of expunging prior cannabis convictions remains complicated and expensive, with methods to clear records varying widely between jurisdictions.
People with marijuana records may struggle to pay outstanding fines or locate documents from different courthouses—if they are even aware at all that they are eligible for expungement.
But against all these barriers, the movement to expunge cannabis records is growing rapidly. That’s the takeaway from a new report on the impact of National Expungement Week (NEW), which launched in 2018 and is now an annual occurrence. NEW offers expungement and post-conviction relief services, as well as other social and support services, at various events hosted throughout the country.
In 2019, NEW helped 652 people start the record clearing process, more than double the 298 people it assisted in 2018. The number of people who received other services like voter registration, job support and health screenings increased by more than 750 percent, to 3,069 people.
Seven hundred and fifty people cleared or reduced their court fines and fees associated with the expungement process. Last year’s event also more than doubled the amount of expungement clinics and events hosted, from 18 events in 15 cities in 2018 to 44 events in over 30 cities in 2019.
A popular video promo by comedy actor Seth Rogen may have also helped new audiences discover NEW. Rogen’s cannabis company Houseplant also sponsored the expungement assistance push, as did Canopy Growth Corporation and Caliva. Rock the Vote and Equity First Alliance were also involved.
“While we are encouraged by the growth of National Expungement Week, it only demonstrates the need for deeper reforms of the record clearing process at the state and federal levels,” Torie Marshall, director of Cage-Free Repair, one of the nonprofits that helps to organizes NEW, said in a press release. “We will continue to fight for those reforms while providing direct services to justice-impacted communities.”
Organizers estimate that the 2019 effort generated a public benefit of $7,143,964, in the form of increased wages, reduced public spending and other benefits over the next two years.
The report describes some of the barriers and challenges facing people who want to expunge their records. Only four-to-six percent of people eligible for expungement or post-conviction relief actually apply for it, the document reports. People with records may have difficulty simply locating their criminal records from courts and offices, or they may struggle to afford an attorney to help them. There’s also the possibility that distrust in the criminal justice system due to prior experiences with arrests or incarceration may be a factor.
“We believe in the necessity of both automation and clinics,” the report states. “Technology offers a chance to provide cost-effective legal relief at scale, and events provide opportunities to connect in-person and deliver wraparound services in a coordinated fashion. With 77 million people in the US in possession of a criminal record, we need multi-faceted solutions to address the challenges of these complex problems.”
Notably in 2019, NEW also partnered with the tech non-profit Code for America (CFA), which hosted the National Day of Civic Hacking on September 21, the first day of NEW 2019. The civic hacking day alone featured 46 events throughout the U.S. focused on the criminal justice system and record clearing.
CFA has been working with county governments to automate the process of cannabis record expungement. In February 2019, San Francisco County used CFA’s special Clear My Record software to expunge 8,100 cannabis convictions. Then, in April, Los Angeles and San Joaquin Counties announced they were partnering with CFA to clear as many as 54,000 convictions. Finally, in September, CFA made their software available for any prosecutor in California to use.
More state and local governments are signing onto not just marijuana legalization, but record expungement as well. Last year, the top prosecutor in Baltimore announced that her office would no longer prosecute marijuana possession cases and would expunge nearly a decade’s worth of marijuana cases. And on December 31, the day before Illinois opened its first adult-use cannabis shops, Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) cleared the marijuana possession records of 11,000 people.
The next National Expungement Week will be held September 19-26.