If Marijuana Is Legalized, What About People Already Behind Bars?
By Katelynn Ulrich
Legalizing marijuana for adult use is much more than an issue for New Yorkers who wish to partake recreationally. It’s part of a sweeping criminal justice reform agenda heading into the 2019 legislative session.
“We must also end the needless and unjust criminal convictions and the debilitating criminal stigma and let’s legalize the adult use of recreational marijuana once and for all,” announced Gov. Andrew Cuomo in unveiling his agenda for the first 100 days.
Cuomo did not provide many details on what the legalization of marijuana in New York would mean, such as how it could be taxed, but he did call the move part of an effort to provide equity in the criminal justice system.
“Quite frankly, it’s the civil rights issue of our era, in terms of reducing mass incarceration,” said Kelly Gonzalez, deputy director for Center for Community Alternatives in Syracuse, which advocates policy to reduce reliance on incarceration. “This would be one step closer to that.
“Between 2001 and 2010, a black person was four times as likely to be arrested as a white person for having marijuana even though the rate of use was the same, so we have to grapple with that.”
Emily Singletary is the co-founder and executive director of Unchained, which advocates for the rights of people behind bars and people still living in the shadows of their convictions, who find it difficult to get employment, housing and more.
“Now that we’re talking about legalizing it, there needs to be some retroactive measure. Not just legalizing it, forgiving and going forward,” Singletary said.
While brief, the except of Cuomo’s speech did not address whether criminal records could be expunged, which both Gonzalez and Singletary say must be addressed in Albany.
“There’s nothing that stops the legislature from passing legislation that says for the same classification of marijuana that is now legal, we are now going to pass a statute that if were convicted of that same offense, whether it’s possession, whether it’s sale, we are going to pass a statute that is automatically going to seal those convictions,” Gonzalez said.
“I don’t think that the criminal justice reform community and advocacy community is going to get behind a bill that doesn’t include something like that,” said Singletary.
According to Unchained, which documented 500 arraignments in Syracuse City Court since September, 1/3rd were for unlawful possession of marijuana, which is a violation-level offense.