Marijuana laws are changing everywhere, and the lawmakers in New York are expected to legalize marijuana in this state – in the very near future – for recreational use by adults. This has drug crimes lawyers in New York on high-alert.

What changes can you expect? Are there any obstacles remaining to legalization?

Legalization is a rapidly-growing trend. Marijuana for medical use is legal, as of July 2018, in twenty-nine states, Puerto Rico, Guam, and the District of Columbia.

Marijuana for recreational use by adults is legal, as of July 2018, in nine states and the District of Columbia. Recreational marijuana is “decriminalized” in another thirteen states and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

And beginning on October 17, 2018, adults in Canada will be allowed to consume cannabis recreationally with no criminal penalties.

WHAT IS THE STATUS OF POT IN THE STATE OF NEW YORK?

What’s changing here in New York? There is a growing consensus that our state’s marijuana policies are and continue to be an outdated and costly failure.

In June, New York Health Commissioner Howard Zucker announced that he would recommend statewide cannabis legalization.

Also in June, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio announced that the New York Police Department would issue tickets – rather than make arrests – when they find cannabis users smoking pot in public.

WHAT IS THE CURRENT LAW REGARDING MARIJUANA POSSESSION?

But before you break out the pipes and the rolling papers, keep reading, and you’ll learn the details about the current status of marijuana and the anticipated changes in New York’s notoriously harsh marijuana laws.

The first thing that everyone in New York must understand is that, as of July 2018, and unless you have been certified and you’re registered to use it for medical purposes, the possession of marijuana in any amount is still against the law in every part of this state.

Marijuana for medical purposes became legal in our state in 2016. Only twelve medical conditions qualify patients for a medical marijuana certification. Users are issued a card that allows them to purchase medical marijuana from licensed dispensaries.

HOW ARE THE POT LAWS CHANGING IN NEW YORK?

Beginning on September 1, 2018, if a police officer catches you publicly smoking pot in New York City, you probably will be issued a ticket. You’ll be given a court date, and you may have to pay a $100 fine.

What will be the exceptions? Public pot smokers without identification and those with a history of violence or with an outstanding warrant will be taken into custody.

Anyone whose pot smoking constitutes a risk to the public’s safety will also be arrested. Officers will have the discretion to decide – on the spot – between making an arrest and issuing a ticket.

WHY ARE THESE CHANGES HAPPENING NOW?

The racial disparities behind the marijuana arrest numbers in New York City are the immediate reason for the changes there. Under the new policy, the NYPD will be making about 10,000 fewer arrests every year.

Civil rights activists argue that the NYPD has a history of disproportionately targeting minorities for pot-related arrests. City Council Member Donovan Richards said the new pot policy is a step aimed at eliminating the “targeted enforcement” of cannabis laws.

James O’Neill, New York’s Police Commissioner, says that the NYPD “does not target anyone based on race,” but he admits that encounters between pot smokers and police officers are sometimes needlessly confrontational and could be improved upon.

Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. and Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez have already announced their plans to stop prosecuting most pot users in those boroughs.

WILL THE STATE OF NEW YORK LEGALIZE RECREATIONAL MARIJUANA?

But what about marijuana laws in the rest of the state – outside of New York City? Governor Andrew Cuomo’s state budget for 2018 calls for a formal study to be conducted regarding the pros and cons of making recreational cannabis use legal for adults in New York.

Momentum for cannabis legalization is growing in our state. A poll conducted late in 2017 showed support for the legalization of recreational marijuana for adults had reached 62 percent among New York voters.

The same poll showed that 60 percent of New York voters also favor legalizing and taxing recreational marijuana as a strategy to deal with New York’s formidable budget deficit.

Across the nation, the most recent survey conducted by the Center for American Progress and the research firm GBA Strategies shows that 68 percent of the voters in the United States now favor an end to cannabis prohibition.

WHAT IS THE MARIJUANA REGULATION AND TAXATION ACT?

A proposal currently before the New York State Legislature, the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act, would legalize, regulate, and tax recreational marijuana in our state.

The proposal would permit adults to purchase legally up to two ounces of marijuana. People who have been convicted of minor marijuana possession and sale charges could apply to have those convictions vacated under the proposal.

HOW MANY PEOPLE GET ARRESTED FOR POT POSSESSION IN NEW YORK?

That’s important because more than 800,000 people – mostly black and Hispanic New Yorkers – have been arrested for marijuana possession in the state of New York over the past two decades.

The result of those arrests – and of the subsequent prosecutions and convictions – has been the denial of college grants and better jobs to many New Yorkers belonging to minorities.

Finally, anyone who is currently in custody for a minor marijuana offense in New York would be released from custody or would become eligible for a reduced sentence under the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act.

A study conducted by the New York City Comptroller’s Office earlier this year estimated that the potential tax revenue for a legal marijuana market in the state of New York would be more than $1.3 billion annually.

But that’s for the future.

IF YOU’RE IN LEGAL TROUBLE OVER POT, WHERE CAN YOU TURN?

For now, if you are arrested for the possession or sale of marijuana – or for any other drug charge in Westchester County or in any other jurisdiction in this state – you’ll need to be advised and represented by a criminal defense attorney.

If you are charged with possessing or selling pot – or any other drug – in New York City, Westchester County, or anywhere in the state:

1. Exercise your right to remain silent and your right to an attorney.
2. Consult a qualified criminal defense attorney.
3. Make that call immediately.

If you’re facing a drug charge in New York, make no mistake: the penalties for most drug offenses are still quite harsh. And don’t just assume that because it’s marijuana, it’s “no big deal” and that you’ll “skate.”

A conviction – even in 2018, even for simple marijuana possession – may go on your record and may impair your ability to find work or continue your education. If you’re in legal trouble over pot, get a defense attorney’s help at once. That is your right.

By: Kimberly Pelesz

Family law and criminal defense attorney Kimberly A. Pelesz received a B.S. degree magna cum laude and an M.P.A. degree summa cum laude from Binghamton University. She earned her J.D. from Pace University School of Law in White Plains, where she was selected for Phi Alpha Delta. Her charitable activities include work with My Sisters’ Place in White Plains and the Westchester County District Attorney’s Humane Education Taskforce.

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