History in NYC as DA Moves to Eradicate 20,000 Marijuana Convictions
Up to 20,000 marijuana convictions in New York City may soon be wiped out thanks to Brooklyn District Attorney Eric Gonzalez. Gonzalez is leading the charge in NY to dismiss convictions for marijuana offenses that the state is no longer prosecuting. The DA’s move is part of a larger movement of overturning marijuana convictions around the country as marijuana becomes increasingly legalized.
To implement the policy change, Gonzalez has invited people to submit requests to have their marijuana convictions dismissed. Gonzalez predicted most of the 20,000 marijuana convictions since 1990 and some older convictions would be approved for dismissal. The office of the Brooklyn district attorney is no longer prosecuting most marijuana offenses, and Gonzalez thinks it’s only right to strike out existing minor convictions.
“It’s a little unfair to say we’re no longer prosecuting these cases, but to have these folks carry these convictions for the rest of their lives,” Gonzalez told The Associated Press in an interview last Thursday.
As Marijuana is Legalized, What to do With Past Convictions?
In recent years marijuana has achieved an increasingly legal position around the country. Twenty-nine states have medical marijuana programs but not all are currently operational, and some only cover limited medical conditions. In some states without legalized medical marijuana, CBD (the non-psychoactive component of marijuana) is allowed to help manage conditions like epilepsy, cancer, anxiety and more. Nine states and D.C. have legalized recreational marijuana with varying conditions on its use.
As the legal status for marijuana has changed around the country, cities and states have been left with the matter of what to do with marijuana convictions for offenses that no longer would be considered illegal. According to the ACLU, over half of all drug arrests in the U.S. are for marijuana, and 88 percent of marijuana arrests are for simply possessing the drug. The ACLU also reports that while blacks and whites show similar usage rates of marijuana, black people are 3.73 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites.
A marijuana arrest can be devastating, because of the power a single conviction can have on a person’s record. An arrest creates a permanent criminal record that can be found by any employer, bank, credit screener, landlord, government entity and so on.
Advocates for legalizing marijuana also argue legalization will free up valuable police personnel, resources and funds. According to the ACLU, in 2010 states combined spent $3.6 billion enforcing marijuana laws. New York and California combined spent over $1 billion on enforcing marijuana possession laws. As marijuana becomes legalized that money can be used for other police purposes, like pursuing violent criminal offenses.
Several prosecutors in states that have now legalized marijuana have begun to void convictions. Just last month, lawmakers in California approved a measure that would force prosecutors to void or reduce up to 220,000 marijuana convictions in the state. Lawmakers are waiting on California Gov. Jerry Brown to approve the initiative.
Individual cities like San Francisco, San Diego and Seattle where marijuana is now legal have also taken steps to wipe out past marijuana convictions.
New York Appears to be on a Path to Legalized Recreational Marijuana
Gonzalez’s initiative to strike out thousands of pot convictions in Brooklyn will be reviewed on a case-by-case basis. However, in New York, recreational marijuana is still illegal and the law under which most marijuana convictions were made still stands. New York does allow marijuana-based medications for treating certain conditions in New York. Governor Andrew Cuomo has appointed a panel to draft legislation that could legalize recreational marijuana.
There are five boroughs in New York City – Brooklyn, Manhattan, Queens, Staten Island, and the Bronx. Gonzalez and Manhattan DA Cyrus R. Vance Jr. pledged to stop prosecuting most marijuana offenses, but the three other borough DAs still prosecute marijuana offenses. Queens and the Bronx have, however, made recent moves towards stopping prosecution of marijuana offenses.
Gonzalez’s plan is to allow minor offenders convicted of marijuana use and possession to approach the court for case dismissal. The DAs office will, however, turn down requests made by people additionally convicted of felonies, sexual violence, or drug sales among others. Legal groups are free to help offenders sort out the cases with the DA’s office or at the courts.
Dismissing the convictions ultimately lies with the judge. Typically, judges agree to prosecutor’s requests to dismiss cases or convictions.