by Jesse Kapstad
What you can do:
- Learn about marijuana legality in your state: https://disa.com/map-of-marijuana-legality-by-state
- Inform yourself of the specifics of the New York legislation: https://www.governor.ny.gov/news/governor-cuomo-signs-legislation-legalizing-adult-use-cannabis
- Educate yourself on the disproportionate racial effects of the War on Drugs: https://www.aclu.org/other/drug-war-new-jim-crow
With the signing of legislation (S.854-A/A.1248-A), New York became one of the fifteen states to legalize marijuana for recreational use, among a total of 36 states and 4 U.S. territories that legalized the drug for medical use. The passing of this legislation, as well as the pending legislation in South Dakota, New Mexico, and Virgina, reflects changing attitudes about cannabis. Yet, with the turbulent history of the War on Drugs originating in the 1970s, how does this legislation affect incarcerated individuals? The signed bill brings about comprehensive changes in social, economic, and criminal justice areas. The basics of the bill lay out automatic resentencing or record expungement for those convicted of marijuana-related crimes and reduces penalties to avoid the criminalization that came about during the peak of the War on Drugs .
This legislation allows adults over the age of 21 to possess up to 3 ounces of cannabis for recreational use, meaning that they can smoke or consume the product wherever they are allowed to smoke tobacco. Of course, there are still restrictions on usage, such as smoking marijuana in cars, schools, and the workplace, but this allows for widespread consumption. Additionally, dispensaries will have the ability to purchase licenses, and both sell and deliver cannabis products. This paves the way for a regulated but growing industry. In terms of incarcerated persons, all New York State residents with marijuana-related convictions will automatically have their records expunged . This means that these convictions will no longer appear on background checks for these individuals, which will allow them to get approved for jobs easier. Additionally, the law creates a tax revenue system that invests in education and establishes a traffic safety research study .
A key facet of the bill is that it will bring about widespread economic stimulus, especially to those hurt by previous marijuana policies. A 13% total tax rate will bring in an estimated 350 million dollars annually and create 60,000 jobs in the state . New job sectors include the newly-created Office of Cannabis Management, The Department of Health’s branch of public safety, and commercial dispensaries. However, the forefront of the economic developments is how the tax revenue will be reinvested in communities for social benefit. The revenue generated from the tax will go towards costs for administering the program, with the remaining amount being divided into education, a community grants investment fund, and a drug treatment and public education fund . These funds are specifically intended to invest in public areas that reduce incarceration and build for the future. Increased funding in education is linked to decreased rates of incarceration and recidivism, which promotes justice reform . Additionally, community grants aim to establish a robust equity program for those disproportionately affected by the policies of prohibition and drug-addiction treatment fosters safety around substance use .
Much of this bill reverses the harsh drug-related policies passed in the 1970s under New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller and President Richard Nixon. Most significant among the policies enacted by Nixon were mandatory prison sentencing for drug convictions and the classification of marijuana as a schedule 1 drug, alongside LSD, heroin, and ecstasy. Schedule 1 drugs are classified as the most dangerous because they have a high risk of addiction and no medical benefits. Despite research and treatment in recent years that shows the benefits of marijuana for medical use, it remains in this category of drug under federal law. These policies were key in leading to the high incarceration rate of individuals even with small amounts of marijuana on their person . As a result of the bill, between 900,000 and 1 million people are estimated to have low-level marijuana offenses expunged from their records, removing a huge roadblock for employment opportunities. Many job sections, especially in government or administrative roles, see prior convictions as a basis to refuse to hire someone, so this bill brings relief to many individuals with convictions on their records. Pre-pandemic, the unemployment rate for the general population was approximately 3.5%, but that number rises to 30% for those with criminal records, including drug offenses .
The New York law also sets to rectify years of racist policies in regards to drug possession that disproportionately affected low-income Black and Brown communities. Despite similar usage rates between white individuals and people of color, the vast majority of drug-related arrests under the Rockerfeller laws happened in low-income Black and Hispanic communities . The bill aims to fix these arrests, in which Black and Hispanic individuals were arrested at 5 and 15 times the rate of white individuals respectively for low-level marijuana charges in Manhattan . In erasing the punishment for low-level possession of marijuana, the new bill seeks to cut out unfair policing and sentencing that results in disproportionately affected minority communities . Part of the necessity to repair the damages done by the War on Drugs stems from the deceitful origins of the policies. John Erlichman, Nixon’s domestic policy chief, was quoted in a 1994 interview saying “We knew we couldn’t make it illegal to be either against the war on Black, but by getting the public to associate the hippies with marijuana and Blacks with heroin, and then criminalizing both heavily, we could disrupt those communities. We could arrest their leaders, raid their homes, break up their meetings, and vilify them night after night on the evening news. Did we know we were lying about the drugs? Of course, we did” . In addition to combatting years of racist policies, the New York bill will dedicate 40% of the revenue generated to communities of color that were disproportionately impacted by the drug war . This is a step in the right direction for correcting the long-term effects that the criminalization of marijuana had.
While some health officials are concerned about driving accidents and the impact on children, the aim of the new law is to improve safety by researching driving habits as well as by launching an education and prevention campaign in schools. The purpose of this educational campaign is to foster a better understanding of how cannabis works and its effects so that individuals grow up making informed choices .
With marijuana possession still illegal at the federal level and with each state able to set its own laws in regards to possession, there are some major discrepancies across state lines. While New Mexico joins New York and a handful of states that will expunge criminal records for those arrested of marijuana possession, many incarcerated individuals, currently and formerly, in surrounding states still face the consequences of their convictions every day. Despite efforts by voters and elected officials in some states to change the laws, progress is slow. Marijuana possession is still fully illegal in 6 states: Idaho, Wyoming, Kansas, Tennessee, Alabama, and South Carolina. Recently, Minnesota, North Dakota, and South Dakota voted for medicinal marijuana use programs, yet they are tied up in legislative controversy as voters and lawmakers clash over the implementation for such policies. As a result, legalization has stalled despite popular support. South Dakota has some of the strongest punishments for possession out of all the states and legislation faces strong opposition from its governor, Kristi Noem, despite changing voter attitudes towards marijuana legalization. Recently, South Dakotan voters passed Measure 26 and Amendment A, which legalized medical and recreational marijuana respectively, yet they face opposition from officials . This leaves the fate of the records of many formerly incarcerated individuals uncertain as legislative progress varies across state lines.
Additionally, the legalization of marijuana in New York and other states creates inconsistency in employment and workplace regulation. Unlike for alcohol, there currently is no test for marijuana that can differentiate between on the clock and off the clock intoxication. Employers do not want their employees working under any influence, and in some cases it may even be dangerous. As a result, most employers maintain a zero-tolerance policy for both in and out of the workplace. Yet some employers have relaxed their rules and will allow for off the clock usage, disciplining employees when it is clear their productivity on the job has decreased. A portion of companies are changing policies more favorably around the use of medical marijuana, but they often keep with zero-tolerance policies and force people who use marijuana for medicinal purposes to choose between health and employment. Workplace policies will adapt and continue to shift as laws change across the nation, but as of right now, companies have yet to adapt a new, consistent standard .
While the issue of controlled substances is complex and the U.S. continues to struggle with drug addiction, as well as drug abuse, harsher punishments are not the answer. The issue is a social, not legal, one, and the best way to combat drug addiction is by funding rehabilitative efforts, much like the way New York law is attempting to do. By legalizing marijuana, New York makes its consumption safer and helps repair some of the damage done to countless individuals via the War on Drugs. The newly signed New York law, in addition to funding drug addiction rehabilitation and education, also allows numerous formerly convicted individuals freedom from overly-harsh previous punishments.