convictions

At a time when freedom seems to be under siege from all sides, cannabis decriminalization provides a thread of hope. Lawmakers in several states and even federal government are coming to their senses about the necessity of cannabis freedom, and in some cases are applying rationality retroactively.

The state of New York, which now allows medical cannabis and has decriminalized possession of small amounts for recreational use, is set to seal the records of those who have been convicted of simple possession of cannabis.

According to the Drug Policy Alliance:

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“[Feb. 14, 2017], the New York State Assembly voted in support of A.2142, a bill that will seal the criminal records of people who have been unjustly and unconstitutionally arrested for simple possession of marijuana in public view. The vote was 95 in favor and 38 opposed. Over the last 20 years, more than 800,000 New Yorkers have been arrested for simple possession of marijuana. Those convicted face significant barriers to accessing education, employment, housing opportunities, and other state services.”

Backers of the bill recognize that cannabis arrests have been used to target minority populations, and are still used by cops across the state thanks to a loophole in the law. In 2016, more than 22,000 New Yorkers were arrested for simple possession – despite decriminalization – and 80 percent of those were black or Latino.

Case in point: Bobby Lopez. Lopez is left permanently disabled and missing part of his skull because cops thought he was in possession of a small amount of cannabis last August. When they approached Lopez, police tackled him down a flight of stairs, sending his head smashing into the pavement.

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Since cannabis use is about equal among all ethnicities, this rate is a clear sign of discrimination. But this is not entirely surprising, considering that the war on drugs was initiated as a means to target minorities and political dissenters.

I introduced the marijuana sealing bill because drug laws have created a permanent underclass of people unable to find jobs after a conviction,” said Assemblymember Crystal Peoples-Stokes. “One of the most damaging issues derived from the war on drugs is that the policies are inherently racist. Communities of color have been devastated by bad drug policies and hyper-criminalization for the last 40 years. It is an approach that has never worked and has caused significantly more harm than good to our communities and to our families. If today’s moment of increased attention to heroin encourages us to center public health in our drug policy, then we need to ensure that we are making amends to communities of color by alleviating the burden bad policies have had on their lives. Sealing low-level marijuana possession convictions is the first step to reintegrating thousands of New Yorkers who are inhibited daily from accessing employment, housing and an education all due to a conviction on their record for simple possession of marijuana.”

A companion bill in the Senate will be considered before the session ends on June 21, and Governor Cuomo is likely to sign the legislation. Cuomo has also vowed to close the loophole that still allows cops to arrest people for “public view of marijuana possession,” a misdemeanor that brings a permanent criminal record.

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Sealing cannabis convictions is a great step toward freedom and equality, and has the added benefit of protecting immigrants being targeted by a hostile Trump administration. DPA notes that “simple marijuana possession is the fourth most common cause of deportation,” so sealing records will make it that much more difficult for immigration authorities to deport lawful permanent residents.

Possession of cannabis — or any drug for that matter — should not be the basis for uprooting lives, nor should it provide opportunity for law enforcement to continue the racist war on drugs. New York’s bold step should be a model for other states.

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Justin Gardner is a peaceful free-thinker with a background in the biological sciences. He is interested in bringing rationality back into the national discourse, and independent journalism as a challenge to the status quo.