Gov. Andrew Cuomo recently signed legislation further decriminalizing marijuana in the State of New York. While the new law does not legalize recreational cannabis, it is a significant step towards full legalization.

Like New Jersey, New York’s efforts to legalize cannabis were unable to cross the finish line earlier this year. While Gov. Cuomo now supports legalization and made it a centerpiece of his budget, the New York Legislature was unable to reach a consensus regarding cannabis regulation and taxation.

New York Law Decriminalizes Marijuana Use

The legislation (S.6579A/A.8420) reduces the penalty for unlawful possession of marijuana to a violation punishable by a fine and establishes a process for individuals who have been convicted for possessing small amounts of marijuana to have their records expunged. The bill will take effect 30 days after becoming law.

In signing the bill, Gov. Cuomo emphasized that the new law aims to address the racial injustice caused by the state's current drug laws. "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," Cuomo stated in a press statement, "we are taking a critical step forward in addressing a broken and discriminatory criminal justice process."

S.6579A/A.8420 eliminates the criminal penalties for possession of less than two ounces of marijuana. It also reduces the penalty for the possession of less than one ounce of marijuana to a $50 fine, regardless of criminal history. The maximum fine for the possession of between one and two ounces is $200, regardless of criminal history.

S.6579A/A.8420 also establishes a process for individuals with certain marijuana convictions to have their records expunged both retroactively and for future convictions. Notably, most prior convictions for marijuana possession of 25 grams or less will automatically be expunged. Marijuana will be added to the definition of smoking in the Public Health Law, which will ban smoking marijuana anywhere smoking tobacco is prohibited.

Federal Legislation to Decriminalize Marijuana

Sen. Kamala Harris and (D-Calif.) and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler (D-N.Y.) recently introduced a bill that would decriminalize marijuana and expunge previous convictions across the country. To decriminalize cannabis nationwide, the Marijuana Opportunity Reinvestment and Expungement Act would remove marijuana from the Controlled Substances Act. The change would apply retroactively to prior and pending convictions.

"Times have changed — marijuana should not be a crime. ... We need to start regulating marijuana and expunge marijuana convictions from the records of millions of Americans so they can get on with their lives," Harris said in a statement.

Below are several other key provisions of the federal legislation:

  • Requires federal courts to expunge prior convictions, allows prior offenders to request expungement, and requires courts, on motion, to conduct re-sentencing hearings for those still under supervision.
  • Authorizes the assessment of a 5percent  sales tax on marijuana and marijuana products to create an Opportunity Trust Fund, which includes three grant programs:
    • The Community Reinvestment Grant Program: Provides services to the individuals most adversely impacted by the War on Drugs, including job training, re-entry services, legal aid, literacy programs, youth recreation, mentoring, and substance use treatment.  
    • The Cannabis Opportunity Grant Program: Provides funds for loans to assist small businesses in the marijuana industry that are owned and controlled by socially and economically disadvantaged individuals.
    • The Equitable Licensing Grant Program: Provides funds for programs that minimize barriers to marijuana licensing and employment for the individuals most adversely impacted by the War on Drugs.
  • Opens up Small Business Administration funding for legitimate cannabis-related businesses and service providers.
  • Provides non-discrimination protections for marijuana use or possession, and for prior convictions for a marijuana offense.

While the bill enjoys widespread Democratic support and has the support of a broad coalition of civil rights, criminal justice, drug policy, and immigration groups, it faces an uphill battle in the Republican-held Senate. In the meantime, state-level legalization efforts of recreational and medical marijuana will continue to create opportunities for cannabis businesses.

If you have any questions, please contact us

If you have any questions or if you would like to discuss the matter further, please contact me, Gregg Hilzer, at 201-806-3364.

This article is a part of a series pertaining to cannabis legalization in New Jersey and the United States at large. Prior articles in this series are below:

Disclaimer: Possession, use, distribution, and/or sale of cannabis is a Federal crime and is subject to related Federal policy. Legal advice provided by Scarinci Hollenbeck, LLC is designed to counsel clients regarding the validity, scope, meaning, and application of existing and/or proposed cannabis law. Scarinci Hollenbeck, LLC will not provide assistance in circumventing Federal or state cannabis law or policy, and advice provided by our office should not be construed as such.