In a decision that attorneys say could open the door to other class-action lawsuits, a petition has been approved to seal the criminal records of 350 people with marijuana misdemeanors in Manhattan.
Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance Jr. worked with nonprofit and pro-bono lawyers from groups like the Legal Aid Society to make the mass record sealing a reality. The move was set into motion by a change to New York’s Raise the Age Act. That 2017 legislation stated that people with two or less nonviolent offenses would be eligible to have their records sealed after a decade if they had no new offenses on their record.
But as good as that provision sounded, it has been difficult for individuals to access on their own. 1,200 people have managed to get their records wiped clean, out of the estimated 600,000 who are eligible for the program. That’s due to barriers that stand in the way of average citizens, who may not be aware of the policy change, or have issues navigating the bureaucracy that is obligatory to claim the record sealing.
New York has taken a singular approach to marijuana policy over the past year, a period that began with Governor Andrew Cuomo pledging to legalize recreational cannabis during his reelection campaign. After much hype, the plan ran aground over issues of social justice and tax structure. But a few weeks ago, legislators somewhat resuscitated the state’s desire to change marijuana policy when they passed a bill that decriminalized possession of small amounts of cannabis, reducing penalties to $50 for one ounce and $200 for amounts between one and two ounces.
But while policy debates raged in Albany, local jurisdictions in New York were also considering measures that would dismantle harmful Drug War policies. In April, the New York City Council considered a bill to ban many employers from instituting mandatory drug tests for employees. It ended up being passed by a vote of 40 to 4, and will apply even to companies whose headquarters are located outside of New York state. The council also passed a bill that bans people on probation from being tested for marijuana, a common parole and probation violation that can have disastrous effects on a person’s job and housing prospects.
Much of the push to remove marijuana offenses from the state’s criminal justice system is based on the growing acceptance of the fact that much of the war on drugs was racially motivated. Although usage rates have largely been shown to be consistent across racial groups, Black and Latino individuals have consistently been arrested and convicted at higher rates than whites. That disparity led one group of Black lawmakers to threaten to oppose Cuomo’s legalization plans if they did not include sufficient plans to correct past marijuana-related racial injustice.
The Wall Street Journal article announcing the mass record sealing quoted a 43-year-old single father named Devin whose two 1997 marijuana possession misdemeanors were proving prohibitive in his job search. “I feel vindicated and grateful,” he said. “Everyone in my family had good jobs, and I’m trying to follow in their footsteps. If I can get a job with the city, I’ll be doing even better than I’m doing now.”