Decriminalization of Marijuana in New York

July 3, 2019

By Jill K. Sanders, Esq.

In June, the New York legislature passed a bill which decriminalizes many marijuana possession offenses. While not fully legalizing the drug’s possession, it shows that New York may soon become another state to legalize recreational use.

Update: On August 28, 2019, the new laws decriminalizing marijuana and expunging some convictions went into effect.


What Does Marijuana Decriminalization Mean?

Decriminalization of marijuana means the removal of criminal penalties for certain possession offenses. Note, however, it remains a crime to buy, sell, trade, or grow marijuana in New York. You can also not smoke it while driving, or drive under the influence of the drug. It will also remain a crime to possess large amounts of marijuana.

Once signed into law by Gov. Andrew Cuomo, the penalties for possession of small amounts of the drug will be reduced. It will also expunge the records of those convicted of minor marijuana possession offenses in the past.

According to some lawmakers, the change in laws was warranted to discontinue what they consider the unnecessary prosecution of low-level  offenses. There have also been critics who claim there was unequal enforcement and targeting by police of minorities.


What Will the New Laws Be?

In 1977, New York revised its marijuana laws to decriminalize possession of less than 23 grams (approximately one ounce). This only applies to possession in a private place, not in public. Unlawful Possession of Marijuana is a violation and not a crime. Fines for a first offense are $100 to $200, and $250 for second and third offenses. For public possession of the drug, this is a B misdemeanor punishable by up to 90 days in jail and a $250 fine.

The new law, once in effect, will make possession of two ounces (57 grams) or less a violation rather than a crime. For less than one ounce the fine will be $50, and $100 for less than two ounces. Additional offenses will not increase the fines. The bill removes the distinction between public and private view. Smoking marijuana will also be prohibited in any circumstances where smoking tobacco is also prohibited.

An important facet of the bill is the provision for expunging certain prior marijuana convictions. If the prior conviction would be a violation under the new law, the conviction shall be vacated and dismissed. The expungement provision applies both retroactively and for future convictions.


Is Recreational Marijuana Legal?

The short answer is “no.” Possession of even a small amount of marijuana can still lead to a ticket, even if it doesn’t result in a criminal charge. And possession of larger amounts of the drug will remain illegal.

Note that New York does have an existing medical marijuana law, which requires a medical diagnosis to possess the drug. Further legalization would allow possession and growing of small amounts without any penalty. It would also provide for a system for commercial growing, processing, and sales.