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Activists continue to push for legal cannabis 

Recreational cannabis remains illegal in New York, as does possessing even small amounts of it.

The early part of this year's legislative session was filled with promise that that state lawmakers would end the prohibition on cannabis. But it never happened; legislators just couldn't get on the same page when it came to legalizing it.

Instead, they passed a much weaker marijuana decriminalization bill at almost the last minute. The bill, which the governor hasn't signed yet, would lower the severity of charges for possessing less than two ounces of marijuana. It also would create a legal process for people convicted of low-level marijuana possession to have the charges removed from their record.

Decriminalization isn't new for New York; in 1977, the state made public possession of 25 grams or less of marijuana – just under an ounce – a very minor charge, punishable only by a fine. The new law just takes a few more steps down that path.

Decriminalization certainly shouldn't be confused with legalization; they're rooted in two entirely different concepts. And the bill the Legislature passed wasn't a win for legalization opponents or advocates; many of the advocates had lined up behind MRTA, the sweeping Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act.

"This is just a delay," says Mary Kruger, executive director of Rochester NORML. "And honestly, the leaders felt like they had to give us something that felt like a step toward legalization."

But for now, the public needs to understand what decriminalization means and what their rights are, Kruger says. The law doesn't allow people to possess marijuanja, and it may lead some people to misjudge the severity of minor possession charges, she says. Anyone who is ticketed for a possession violation still needs to show up for court appearances and pay fines, or they risk consequences such as bench warrants.

The decriminalization bill tweaks two specific charges so that they're on par with things such as disorderly conduct, and it lowers the penalties for them. It makes possession of one to two ounces of marijuana a violation; previously the charge was a misdemeanor. And it limits the maximum punishment to a $200 fine. It also lowers the maximum penalty for possessing less than an ounce – already a violation – from $100 to $50.

But decriminalization keeps marijuana prohibition in place and allows police to arrest and charge people for possessing even small amounts of it. People of color are disproportionately arrested and prosecuted on marijuana charges, though statistically, people of all races and ethnicities use and sell marijuana at similar rates.

And there's another glaring flaw: Decriminalization deals only with low-level marijuana possession charges.

"There's still this whole ecosystem of cannabis that's still illegal," Kruger says. Supplying and selling marijuana have not been decriminalized, she says.

The bill's expungement provisions, letting people get low-level charges removed from their record, are valuable, Kruger says. But decriminalization maintains the status-quo, while legalization is the fundamental solution to the problems caused by prohibition, Kruger says.

Cannabis legalization would be a big change for New York, but it's been a long time coming.

Governor Andrew Cuomo began his first term in the state's top office as a firm opponent of legalization. But by the time his third term started in January, he'd embraced the idea to the point that he included it in his budget proposal. In his remarks to Assembly members and Senators, he said it was time to "end the needless and unjust criminal convictions, and the debilitating criminal stigma" associated with marijuana prohibition.

He also said that it'd be easier for lawmakers to pass it as part of the budget.

But many advocates and lawmakers had already lined up behind Assembly member Crystal Peoples-Stokes' Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act. Both proposals would have licensed the cultivation and sale of cannabis, and they would have allowed adults to possess and use it.

But the MRTA calls for a portion of tax revenue from cannabis sales to be directed back to the lower-income neighborhoods of color that were hit hardest by prohibition. The money would be used for education, help people start cannabis businesses, fund community rec center programs, and several other purposes. And that approach drew advocates and lawmakers to the legislation.

"When you look at the harm that has been done to black and brown communities, the full legalization is actually turning that harm around and reinvesting in those communities," says Robert Hoggard, the racial justice representative on Metro Justice's board. Metro Justice has campaigned in support of the MRTA.

Lawmakers could reconvene in a special session to vote on legalization this year, but that's more hypothetical than likely. The issue, and the MRTA, will come up again during the next legislative session, which starts in January 2020.

Kassandra Frederique, New York State director of the Drug Policy Alliance, says advocates will continue to work during the off session to gain support so that the bill can pass in 2020.

"The criminalization of people does not take a six-month recess, and therefore the advocacy to end the criminalization of people will not rest," Frederique said.

Hoggard worries that getting legislation passed next year may prove just as difficult as this year.

"We're going to put the pressure on them, but I'm not sure there's enough steam now because if it didn't pass this year, how will it pass again next year with the same Senators and the same Assembly folks," Hoggard says.

Kruger is more optimistic. She doesn't think the decriminalization legislation will get in the way of legalization or hurt its momentum. There was a stand-alone bill to make some fixes to the state's medical cannabis program that would have put legalization advocates in a tougher spot, if it had passed. The MRTA also contains provisions to improve New York's medical cannabis system, an industry that's already up and running in the state.

"We know we're moving in the right direction, and we're not going away," Kruger says. "We're going to get it the next time."

Karen DeWitt, WXXI News's Albany correspondent, contributed to this article.

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