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Albany — Yesterday, the New York State Assembly voted in support of A10092, a bill that will seal the criminal records of people who have been unjustly and unconstitutionally arrested for simple possession of marijuana in public view. The bipartisan vote was 99 in favor and 42 opposed. Over the last 20 years, over 700,000 New Yorkers have been arrested for simple possession of marijuana. Those convicted face significant barriers to accessing education, employment, housing opportunities, and other state services.

“I introduced the marijuana sealing bill because drug laws have created a permanent underclass of people unable to find jobs after a conviction,” said Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes. “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 bill was sponsored by Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes of Buffalo and members of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus, who last week called once again for equity in our state’s drug policies, citing the impact the discriminatory enforcement of these policies have had on communities of color.

“For too long communities of color have been plagued by the consequences of a broken legal system that has unfairly targeted certain neighborhoods, and created a drug policy that has done little to decrease drug use”, said Assemblymember Robert Rodriguez. “New York needs to atone for its 20 year crusade of unconstitutional marijuana arrests and convictions. Sealing the convictions of those who have been saddled with unjust criminal records is but the first step in repairing the harms of the last 20 years of failed policies.”

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 2015 over 20,000 New Yorkers were arrested for possession of small amounts of marijuana – 83% of whom were black or Latino.

“In the 80s and 90s, racially-motivated drug policy sentenced a generation of young people of color to lives labeled as a criminal,” said Assemblymember Linda B. Rosenthal, Chair of the Assembly Committee on Alcoholism and Drug Abuse. “We now have the opportunity to mete out a measure of justice by sealing prior marijuana conviction, and I call upon the Senate to follow suit.”

The discriminatory practices are statewide. For example, in the city of Buffalo in Erie County, African Americans represent 48% of the marijuana arrests – despite only being 14% of the population of Erie County, 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 on the internet by banks, schools, employers, landlords, and licensing boards.

“I applaud the members and leadership of the Legislature for passing this critical legislation to immediately seal convictions for low-level marijuana possession,” said Lisa Schreibersdorf, President of the Chief Defenders Association of New York. “Marijuana arrests can turn the lives of people throughout New York upside down, impacting their employment, access to student loans, and even their credit scores. This much-needed legislation will help tens of thousands of New Yorkers, their families and communities. I urge the Legislature to pass this bill and Governor Cuomo to sign it into law.”

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.

“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

The passage of the bill comes on the heels of a press conference last week during which members of the Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic and Asian Caucus called upon the legislature to recognize and atone for the extraordinary damage done by the war on drugs to communities of color. The sealing bill was one part of a larger package of proposals to redress the harms done to communities of color, while advancing public health solutions to problematic drug use.

“I applaud the Drug Policy Alliance and VOCAL-NY for standing up for marginalized communities that have for decades now been plagued and devastated by drug addiction and overdose. On top of these struggles, our communities have been targeted for incarceration with the outcome of burdensome criminal records and diminished life chances. Understanding that drug abuse in any community is a public health crisis is key, and now that we’ve begun to adopt this frame, we must go back and correct failed, drug war policies,” said Senator Kevin Parker. “When communities of color were initially overtaken by drugs and its negative externalities, the answer that was presented was a War on Drugs.  Today, I hope we support the sealing of marijuana possession convictions for New Yorkers whose lives have been ruined by the criminal justice system. Let’s learn from our failures and enact legislation that provides evenhanded relief to all communities impacted by both drug abuse and drug policies. I remain eager to work with my colleagues in the Legislature to right this wrong.”

“I applaud my colleagues in the Assembly for taking this positive first step towards addressing the over criminalization of our communities by passing this important piece of legislation” said Senator Gustavo Rivera of the Bronx. “We have all acknowledged that these marijuana possession arrests were unjust and discriminatory, but we must also act to repair the harm that’s been done. We can no longer stand by while ineffective and failed drug polices continue to unnecessarily burden our families and communities.”

Advocates now look to the Senate to quickly pass the Senate companion bill sponsored by Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson before the session ends on June 16th, and to begin to repair the harm done by marijuana prohibition to communities across the state.

“This bill represents a small – but meaningful – step toward repairing the damage done throughout decades of harmful criminalization of minor drug offenses,” said Bernadette Brown, Deputy Legislative Director with the NYCLU. “Nobody should have to face unemployment, custody proceedings, or homelessness because of a conviction for low-level marijuana possession. We now call upon the Senate to pass this measure.”

“Our unjust and racially discriminatory drug policies have had a devastating effect on communities of color throughout New York State. Marijuana is less dangerous than alcohol or cigarettes, yet using it can land you a criminal record that locks you out of jobs, housing, education, and so much more. I commend the Assembly for passing this legislation to seal the records of those arrested for possession of marijuana, and I urge my colleagues in the Senate to follow suit,” said Senator Liz Krueger.

“We need to treat addiction with drug treatment, instead of demonizing and punishing the communities of color affected by this epidemic; we must correct our wrongs. New York’s marijuana possession convictions of the past 20 years were unjust and racially biased. The criminal records of those convictions hamper their ability to successfully move through life with a just opportunity. There is a need reintegrate into society,” said Senator Ruth Hassell-Thompson.

“Formerly incarcerated individuals are routinely denied access to jobs, housing, educational loans, welfare benefits, political participation, and other key social goods solely on the basis of their drug convictions. It is an alarmist attitude of a few who refuse to accept the notion that many of these former addicts have served their time and proven themselves worthy of a second chance. The Marijuana Sealing bill must be passed in the Senate in order to actualize this second chance for all.”

“As the nation comes to the conclusion that we cannot arrest our way out of the “drug problem”, we must work to repair the harms done to communities by the 45 year failed war on drugs,” said Kassandra Frederique, New York State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “Comprehensive drug law reform must include legislative and programmatic measures that account for our wrongheaded policies, policies that can impede New Yorkers from creating healthier and safer lives.”

Date Published: June 16, 2016
Published by Drug Policy Alliance