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News10NBC Investigates: 'That is huge!' NYS marijuana bill expunges old pot convictions

July 23, 2019 11:25 PM

ROCHESTER, N.Y. (WHEC) — Eleven states in the United States have legalized recreational marijuana. New York is not one of them. 

But state lawmakers did something this summer that News10NBC found will impact thousands of people who got arrested for marijuana in the past. 

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The New York State Legislature voted to decriminalize marijuana, not legalize it. One of the biggest components in the bill is the "expungement" of old marijuana possession convictions. 

"That is huge," said Mary Kruger, director of Roc NORML, a marijuana advocacy group. "If someone has a misdemeanor level drug charge on their record, that has collateral consequences throughout their life."

Kruger says a misdemeanor drug conviction cuts a person off from public housing, food stamps and federal student loans. 

Kruger authored a report which says since 1999, 800,000 people in New York were arrested for marijuana possession. If the arrest included other charges, those convictions stand. But the state bill erases those old marijuana convictions. 

"The way we interpret the bill thus far is that it will be automatically done by the state," Kruger said. "It'll affect thousands of New Yorkers."

Now let's be clear, marijuana is still illegal. But here's how decriminalizing tries to cut down on those misdemeanors. 

If someone was in public right now and they displayed their marijuana or consumed it, that is a misdemeanor. A crime. 

The state bill changes that to a violation and in Monroe County, at the direction of District Attorney Sandra Doorley, marijuana violations are not prosecuted. 

Here's another thing the bill does. 

It increases the amount of marijuana you can possess privately without getting charged with a misdemeanor. With the help of Kruger and Alyssa Sprague at Next Level CBD in Rochester, we can show you the difference. 

We used legal hemp to mimic marijuana. 

"So this is 27 grams," Sprague said holding up a clear plastic cup filled to the top. 

"So right now, if you're found to be in possession of that much marijuana, it would be a violation?" News10NBC asked. 

"It would be a violation if you had it in your pocket," Kruger answered. "If it was not in public sight."

A violation is a ticket, not a crime. The bill passed by the state Legislature doubles the amount you can possess without facing a misdemeanor to two ounces. 

"But you're still getting arrested," Kruger said. And that's why she and other marijuana advocates are not satisfied. 

Mary Kruger, Roc Norml: "Folks are still able to be arrested depending on law enforcement's discretion."

Chief Investigative Reporter Berkeley Brean: "They can still arrest and ticket people?"

Kruger: "Certainly, and they will."

So News10NBC went to the head of the police chief's association in Monroe County. 

Brean: "They'll still get a ticket?"

Chief Jim Vanbrederode, Gates Police: "Yes. It'll still be considered an arrest, an arrestable offense." 

Gates Police Chief Jim Vanbrederode, like other chiefs and sheriffs in western New York, has serious concerns about legal marijuana, concerns about more impaired driving and mental health problems. But Vanbrederode says decriminalizing is a good compromise because when police arrest someone it comes with a mandatory drug assessment. 

"I'm not interested in the money, putting you in jail or doing anything like that," he said. "But if it's a wake-up call for you, if it grabs your attention and you have an assessment done and perhaps you have an addiction problem, then that could be a good thing."

The governor has not signed the bill yet. News10NBC contacted his office and spokesman Jason Conwall wrote back in an email, "the bill is under review." 

The governor's office says Cuomo supports decriminalization and proposed the idea in 2013. 

At a news conference on June 19, Cuomo said, "Communities of color have been disproportionately impacted by laws governing marijuana for far too long and it has to end."

Credits

Berkeley Brean

Copyright 2019 - WHEC-TV, LLC A Hubbard Broadcasting Company

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