What NY’s cannabis legalization means for New Yorkers with old marijuana arrests

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Marijuana legalization was bittersweet news for a New Yorker busted with canabis and jailed years ago.

Jesus, who asked PIX11 not to share his full name, spent 90 days on Rikers Island after a 2009 arrest for possession of two ounces of marijuana. He faced years of roadblocks afterwards as he tried to break into the financial services industry.

“I applied for a job at an investment bank and I was accepted, I was hired. I had an offer and everything and then they pulled it,” he said. “Doors just close on you. I mean, this thing just follows you everywhere, even if you want get any type of a job, a securities job, in any type of field where you need to get a fingerprint taken, boom – it comes up.”

Jesus, and other Black and Brown men like him, have had their talent wasted and their potential squandered for decades because of uneven enforcement of marijuana laws.

The new legalization law aims to address 50 years of targeted law enforcement tactics that were carried out primarily within low-income Black and Brown communities, all dating back to the anti-drug campaign launched in January of 1973 by then Republican New York Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

“I have one goal and that is to stop the pushing of drugs and to protect the innocent victims,” Gov. Rockefeller said during that 1973 news conference.

The ensuing “Rockefeller Drug Laws,” passed in the midst of a then growing drug epidemic, were immediately criticized as “archaic;” they called for mandatory minimum sentences of 15 years to life for even first-time offenders caught with small amounts of drugs – including marijuana.

Even when those weed convictions did not lead to prison time, underhanded police tactics ultimately shackled future opportunities – by forcing people just like Jesus to disclose their arrest to prospective employers, Brooklyn borough president, mayoral candidate and retired NYPD Captain Eric Adams said.

“Police officers were telling young people to empty their pockets. Once they emptied their pockets and they had a small quantity of marijuana on them, now it was in public view and it was cause for a larger number of people to be arrested,” Adams said. If it was not in public view, it would not have been an arrestable offense, and so we really abused the laws in this city and it impacted to many people of color.”

It’s unclear just how many low-level marijuana offenders got thrown in with major drug cases in the three decades between the 1970s, 80s and 90s, but the Drug Policy Alliance shared marijuana arrest data for 2000 to 2018, and in that period of time, there more than 900,000 marijuana related arrests. Black and Hispanic individuals made up 80 percent of those cuffed and charged.

Marijuana cases involving a simple violation charge are not included in that number. That means New York’s new legalization law could produce well over 1 million expunged records from just the last two decades alone.

Jesus said he was elated the new laws include expungement of records.

State Assemblymen Victor Pichardo represents the Bronx, where thousands of people are waiting for their records to be expunged.

“We need to be clear that our policy in dealing with this issue has always been stemmed in some form of racism,” Pichardo said. “I’m glad that we are now at least recognizing and dealing with the fact that we need to right this wrong and the folks that have taken the brunt of the ‘War on Drugs’ in particular deserve some recompense.”

Emma Goodman, a staff attorney with the Legal Aid Society’s Special Litigation Unit, successfully helped Jesus get back on track before the legalization law passed. It took over a year to get his record sealed by the court.

“The process is hard so it’s just amazing that finally these records are going to be expunged, but it’s kind of absurd that they were holding people back in the first place,” Goodman said. “He’s doing really, really well and do doesn’t feel bitter at this point, but if I were him, I would because the suffering that he endured for something so insignificant is so ridiculous and he shouldn’t have had to go through that.”

Jesus eventually found success thanks to Goodman’s legal assistance and an empathetic employer. Even though he’s successfully working now in financial services and investment banking, he’s waiting for his record to finally be expunged.

“I’ve been able to do so many things: travel the world because someone decided to take a change on me,” he said. “I run a private equity fund. I ran a hedge fund [and I’m] now doing several different businesses.”

The sad reality of this situation is that there are likely hundreds of thousands of people who don’t have Jesus’ resources – and who’ve lost opportunities which won’t come around again.

Their ‘fresh start’ comes with an upcoming – automatic expungement.

State agencies will have two years to complete the expungements, which could exceed 1 million when it’s all said and done.

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