In March 2016, Vinny Ricks, now 49, was standing in front of his Bushwick apartment with two friends, to whom he had just given some edible weed. Suddenly, police officers approached and demanded to search his pockets, where they found remnants of marijuana. Then they arrested him.
“That night, I cursed myself for possessing weed,” Ricks said. “The officers who arrested me were very rough, maybe because I am African-American.” He pled guilty and was in jail from March 2016 to November 2019.
But this week Ricks is full of joy, since learning that his criminal record will automatically be expunged. Ricks is one of thousands of New Yorkers who have faced convictions for possessing low levels of marijuana, but whose criminal records will soon go away. On March 31, New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo signed a bill that legalizes the possession of less than three ounces of cannabis and expunges the criminal records of people convicted for possessing what is now legal.
Cannabis enforcement has always fallen hardest on the shoulders of Black and brown people. According to data from The Data Collaborative for Justice at John Jay College, in 2019 Black people accounted for the largest proportion of the most commonly issued criminal summonses of all kinds. That includes violations of transit authority rules, such as turnstile jumping (42.6%); disorderly conduct (42.0%); public consumption of alcohol (41.2%)—and possession of marijuana (45.5%). So, when it comes to disappearing criminal records for cannabis, many Black New Yorkers stand to gain.
Vinny Ricks, for one, is delighted about it. “Weed is a harmless plant on the earth.,” he said in a phone interview. “It actually does good work to the same for the human body. I can now smoke weed without worrying about going to jail.”
Willis Snow, 35, is also happy with the new law. He said he received a drug ticket at midnight on February 12th in 2020 in Brooklyn. His failure to show up in court to defend himself resulted in an arrest warrant being issued for the misdemeanor. He called the court and another hearing was scheduled. And now, news of the new legislation has given him hope.
‘’I have a pending hearing before the judge but with the new law, I don’t think they will convict me,” he said. “I am really excited about the news.”
Theodore Mukamal, a former assistant district attorney in Brooklyn, is also glad to see the new law. Mukamal is now an artist and activist, popularly known by his stage name, Tootsie Warhol, but in his prosecutor days, he said, he sometimes worked in the complaint room and arraignment court, where he handled a lot of marijuana cases. There, Mukamal said, he witnessed “how low-level marijuana arrests and summonses disproportionately hurt Latinx and Black Communities.
“The Brooklyn District Attorney’s office pioneered the progressive plan of decriminalizing low level marijuana possession when I was there,” he added, “and I’m pleased to see New York State take a more comprehensive approach to ensuring that the justice system works fairly for everyone.”
With the new law, New York joins fourteen other US states that have legalized marijuana. The move will expand the state’s existing medical cannabis program by setting up a licensing taxation system for recreational sales that is estimated to bring about $350 million annually.
New Yorkers who NY City Lens spoke with seemed to favor the new law. Meredith Moore, of Bushwick, for one, is delighted with it. “It’s pretty cool,” she said. “We are going to see the state’s revenues raising and a number of people set free. I was tired of seeing race-driven enforcement of marijuana laws.”
Leslie Chang of Bushwick also approves but has a worry: “So many people are going to come back from jail,” she said. “And we won’t have enough jobs for everyone.”
According to The New York Times, about 160,000 people with marijuana convictions in New York state are waiting to be cleared.