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Lawmakers strike deal to decriminalize marijuana possession

ALBANY — State lawmakers were poised to give final passage Thursday night to a measure further decriminalizing possession of marijuana and create a process that could lead to the clearing of marijuana conviction records for tens of thousands of people.

A separate measure to greatly expand the state’s existing medical marijuana program — which suffers from high product prices and spotty availability for qualified patients — died a slow Albany death at the end of session.

The decriminalization and expungement efforts came quickly to the forefront of the final hours of session after efforts fell apart earlier this week to legalize marijuana and create a state regulatory system to oversee its cultivation, sales, pricing and potency.

“Anything that we can do to stem the tide of unequal, unfair, racially biased marijuana arrests is something that I’m excited to be doing,’’ Senator Jamaal Bailey, a Bronx Democrat and sponsor of the decriminalization bill in the Senate, said in an interview.

“It’s a step in the right direction but this is not the be-all, end-all issue about marijuana,’’ added Bailey, the Senate’s code committee chairman.

The measure passed the Senate Thursday along party lines, by a 39-23 margin, and was expected to pass later in the Assembly.

Legislative documents state that more than 600,000 people have arrest records for marijuana possession, despite 1977 decriminalization laws. In one recent year in New York City, 88 percent of those arrested were black or Latino, the documents state.

Current law sets marijuana possession fines starting at $100, rising to $250 or 15 days in jail if the person has multiple drug convictions. The new agreement reduces the fine to $50 and makes it a violation — instead of a criminal misdemeanor — if caught possessing more than one ounce of the drug.

Supporters said the deal will sharply reduce cases in which people possess marijuana but it doesn’t become a crime until it comes into public view after a police officer asks them, for instance, to empty their pockets during a stop.

People with past misdemeanor marijuana arrests in many cases can have those records expunged — meaning they would not show up in criminal background checks. Smoking marijuana would be prohibited in all places where smoking tobacco is banned; violation of that provision could result in a $50 fine, half the current level, but would be considered a violation and not a misdemeanor crime. Officials say people charged with violating those provisions would be booked by police, but not held in jail.

“Today is a step in the right direction in ending what’s been called the war on drugs but where I’m from is just a war on black and brown folks,’’ Bailey said during a Senate floor speech before the bill passed.

Bailey credited Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, a Buffalo Democrat and Assembly sponsor of the bill, for helping advance the measure.

Peoples-Stokes was not in Albany Thursday following the death of a family member.

“They happen way beyond the Bronx. They happen in Buffalo, too,’’ Bailey said of disproportionate arrests of minorities for marijuana possession.

Marijuana legalization advocates criticized lawmakers for not taking the route of other states and accepting what they called a flawed decriminalization bill. They noted, for instance, that police will still be able to conduct searches of individuals -- and arrest them -- if they detect a marijuana odor in their presence.

Marijuana legalization critics said the new decriminalization deal still encourages marijuana use and will mean people could carry as many as 180 marijuana cigarettes without committing a crime.

“I have grave concerns … that doing this is not productive for the state of New York,’’ said Senate Minority Leader John Flanagan, a Long Island Republican.

Many lawmakers wanted a sharp expansion of the medical marijuana laws — which they say are too restrictive in health conditions covered and availability is spotty throughout many areas of the state.

Senator Diane Savino, a Staten Island Democrat and the medical marijuana bill sponsor, said it would be “a tragedy” if the law was not updated before lawmakers end the session.

Lawmakers in both houses say there have been bitter feelings among the most pro-legalization legislators over the plan’s failure this week. There was resistance from some lawmakers concerned that medical marijuana is not used as much in poor neighborhoods because of high costs; there has been much grumbling that medical marijuana suppliers are dominated by companies run chiefly by white executives.

“I get the concern about the lack of diversity in this industry,’’ Savino said of marijuana companies. But, she said, expanding the program would help drive down costs for patients.

Savino urged her colleagues to act on her medical bill. She said some frustrated lawmakers might have a “I can’t have mine, you can’t have yours” concern about the failed legalization effort.

But, she added, “that’s no way to develop public policy.’’

“We need to fix the medical program and make it truly about what it’s supposed to be: delivering medicine to people who need it,’’ she added.

Early this morning, the Assembly joined the Senate's earlier passage of a measure to regulate the state's rapidly expanding hemp industry. Its extracts are used in a variety of products, such as clothing. But the extracts are also used to create oils and other forms of CBD that are used by consumers to self-medicate for any assortment of possible ailments. The products have been increasingly appearing on store shelves across the state, and officials are worried that consumers are buying products that can be falsely labeled, contain unknown ingredients and come from anywhere around the world.

The new bill, which Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo supports because he gave lawmakers special permission to pass the bill without going through a legal three-day aging process, will bring new regulations to the industry in a variety of ways. It's also a major win for the beverage industry, which will now be able to sell water and other drinks containing CBD.

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