Law & the Courts

New York State Decriminalizes Marijuana, Expunges Conviction Records

New York Governor Andrew Cuomo speaks during a news conference in N.Y., November 13, 2018. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)

New York governor Andrew Cuomo on Monday signed a law that decriminalizes the recreational use of marijuana in the state but stops short of legalizing the drug.

“Communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by laws governing marijuana for far too long, and today we are ending this injustice once and for all,” Cuomo said in a statement. “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.”

Under the new law, possession of under two ounces of marijuana will be a misdemeanor punished by a fine. In addition, individuals convicted of certain Marijuana-related charges in the past will see those convictions expunged from their records. The law will go into effect 30 days from now.

New York is the 27th state to legalize or decriminalize use of the drug after Hawaii did so last month. Eleven states and the District of Columbia have fully legalized its recreational use. The drug remains illegal under federal law, although states in recent years have been allowed leeway on how to address the issue.

During a speech outlining his immediate priorities at the beginning of his third term last year, Cuomo declared that the U.S. has “two criminal-justice systems: one for the wealthy and the well off, and one for everyone else.” As recently as 2017, he had said that he was “unconvinced on recreational marijuana,” and argued that its use “leads to other drugs, and there’s a lot of proof that that’s true.”

A study released by the New York Department of Health last July found that the tax benefits of legalizing marijuana would outweigh any negative effects on public health. Cuomo has suggested that tax revenue generated from legalizing the drug, which is predicted to be in the hundreds of millions, could be used to repair New York City’s decrepit subway system and address other pressing problems.

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