Democratic lawmakers propose further decriminalization of marijuana

ALBANY — If New York lawmakers don’t approve a commercial market for marijuana in the next three days, they could still sign off on legislation lowering criminal penalties for the drug.

Democratic lawmakers in the Senate and Assembly introduced a proposal late Sunday that would reduce the penalties for possessing marijuana, allow for the expungement of certain criminal convictions and expand the public health law’s definition of “smoking” to include marijuana.

The legislation was produced after talks between Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo and the state Legislature on  legalizing adult-use of marijuana were “having some trouble,” according to a legislative source.

But  Cuomo on Monday said that he isn’t ready to settle for the decriminalization legislation, adding that he hasn’t given up on the legalization of marijuana and establishment of a commercial market.

“I think we should do it all together,” Cuomo told WAMC News. “I don’t think we should do one component now and then come back and do another component.”

The legislative session is scheduled to end Wednesday.

Decriminalization of marijuana is the reason most Democratic lawmakers support legislation that would create a commercial framework for marijuana. They maintain that the state’s previous attempt to decriminalize marijuana in 1977 resulted in minority communities still being disproportionately targeted by law enforcement.

“In other words, in New York, possessing small amounts of marijuana is largely decriminalized for people who are white, and vastly more likely to be criminalized for people who are black or Latino,” a memorandum that accompanies the legislation states. “The consequences of New York’s inequitable decriminalization are severe.”

The memo adds the legislation would address “the disparate racial and ethnic impact that existing law has had by more fairly decriminalizing possession of small amounts of marijuana.”

If enacted, it would no longer be a crime simply to possess a small amount of marijuana that is “burning or open to public view.”

One of the sticking points with negotiations over legalization involves the authority local communities have to approve commercial ventures. Cuomo said Monday that there is disagreement on how municipalities would be allowed to participate in the program, including the method for opting out of it.

The New York Association of Alcoholism and Substance Abuse Providers said Monday that decriminalization is preferable to legalization, which they describe as the endorsement of a “state-sanctioned recreational drug industry.”

“Should adult-use legalization move forward, any final agreement must dedicate at least 25 percent of sales and licensing revenues to state and non-profit entities for public awareness and education campaigns and for the certain increase in the need for prevention, treatment, and recovery services,” ASAP Executive Director John Coppola said in a statement.

The decriminalization legislation is sponsored by Sen. Jamaal Bailey and Assemblywoman Crystal Peoples-Stokes. For the latest in New York state politics, sign up for the Capitol Confidential newsletter. – 518.454.5427 – @poozer87

By David Lombardo