Foss: Help lower-level pot offenders


It doesn’t have to be all or nothing when it comes to legalizing recreational marijuana. 

One reason the effort to legalize pot in New York foundered is because it aimed to do so many things, and legislators couldn’t agree on how to do them. 

Among the big, outstanding questions are how much to tax marijuana, how to divvy up the revenue, and who would be allowed to grow, process and sell it. 

Also unresolved is what advocates refer to as “marijuana justice.” 

How should past convictions for pot be handled? Should criminal records be expunged? Or sealed? 

Should a portion of marijuana revenue be directed to communities disproportionately impacted by the prosecution of marijuana-related crimes — a form of reparations, essentially, for the war on drugs? 

These are difficult issues, and as time goes on I’m becoming increasingly skeptical about the state Legislature’s ability to address them all in one fell swoop. 

Indeed, attempting to grapple with all of the issues raised by legalizing pot appears to have stymied the Legislature, as the legalization movement in New York has hit a dead end. 

And while this could change — new legislation to legalize pot is being introduced this week — it’s unlikely. 

A better, more realistic approach might be to take up the different pieces of marijuana legalization on their own, rather than trying to do it all at once. 

I’d suggest putting aside the regulatory and tax issues for the moment and focusing on marijuana justice — on helping the people whose lives have been adversely affected by drug laws that, in many instances, are overly harsh. 

We don’t need to legalize marijuana to vacate lower-level drug convictions that make it more difficult for people to find housing and get a job. 

The state of Washington, where recreational marijuana is legal, has already taken this step: In March, Gov. Jay Inslee signed a law that requires judges to grant requests to vacate misdemeanor marijuana possession charges that occurred before pot was legalized. 

Last December, Bronx District Attorney Eric Gonzalez agreed to vacate 28 misdemeanor marijuana possession convictions and dismiss 1,422 outstanding warrants related to misdemeanor marijuana possession cases. 

“These past convictions do not make us safe as they may hold back those who carry them from moving forward with their lives as contributing members of society,” Gonzalez said at the time. 

There’s nothing stopping other New York district attorneys from following in Gonzalez’s footsteps, and I’d urge them to do so. 

The Legislature should consider other measures that might restore some sanity to the state’s drug laws. 

New York actually decriminalized marijuana possession in 1977, but the Drug Policy Alliance, an advocacy group, estimates that over the past 20 years approximately 800,000 people have been arrested for possessing pot. The reason? The drug was in “public view.” 

Further decriminalizing marijuana — closing the “public view” loophole that contributes to the thousands of misdemeanor marijuana arrests made each year — might lead to a reduction in lower-level pot arrests, particularly in black and Latino communities. 

Even if outright legalization remains the goal, there’s no reason the Legislature can’t take the interim step of passing laws that make it less likely people will get arrested or do time in prison for possessing marijuana. 

When the Legislature failed to legalize marijuana as part of the budget process, advocates worried that the issue would die. 

They were right to worry, but that doesn’t mean reforming the state’s marijuana laws is a lost cause. There’s still plenty that can be done, even if circumstances dictate a slower, piecemeal approach. 

Reach Gazette columnist Sara Foss at [email protected]. Opinions expressed here are her own and not necessarily the newspaper’s. 


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