Marijuana Reform in New York

The movement to legalize marijuana is rooted in the racist history of the war on drugs. While marijuana consumption and sales occur at similar rates across racial and ethnic groups, Black and Brown people are arrested for possessing marijuana at vastly disproportionate rates.

Marijuana arrests hinder people’s ability to succeed and participate in society by preventing them from obtaining employment, housing, and student loans. Decades of these racially discriminatory arrests have devastated Black and Latinx communities while leaving thousands of people stigmatized with criminal records.

The Drug Policy Alliance (DPA) is working to end these racially biased marijuana arrests for good. While marijuana arrests have decreased statewide, they are still ruining lives and enforcement remains extremely racially biased.

We believe it is time to stop the ineffective and unjust enforcement of marijuana prohibition and begin comprehensively and responsibly regulating marijuana to better serve public health, community well-being, and equity.

Decriminalization is Not Enough

Personal possession of less than 25 grams of marijuana has been decriminalized in New York State since 1977. However, law enforcement officers have still made more than 800,000 arrests for low-level possession in the last 20 years. Despite the new decriminalization bill that took effect in summer 2019, the alleged odor of marijuana can still be used by law enforcement to justify a stop and search -- even with no concrete evidence.

Decriminalization alone will never be enough to right the injustices of discriminatory marijuana enforcement. 

The Facts

  • Statewide in the first half of 2019, Black and Latinx people accounted for 75% of people arrested for low-level marijuana – despite being only 33% of the state’s population.
  • In NYC the overall number of marijuana arrests fell dramatically in the first half of 2019, but racial disparities increased, with 93% of those arrested for low-level marijuana being Black or Latinx.
  • The arrest rate upstate is double 1990 levels.
  • In 2018, youth 25 and younger accounted for 58% of all low-level marijuana arrests, despite being only 30.9% of the state population.

Ending Marijuana Prohibition with Start SMART NY

New York’s marijuana policies have been a profound and costly failure. Start SMART NY – Sensible Marijuana Access through Regulated Trade – is a campaign dedicated to ending marijuana prohibition in New York. 

DPA created this campaign in partnership with groups dedicated to ending the ineffective, racially biased, and unjust enforcement of marijuana prohibition and create in its place a new, well-regulated, and inclusive marijuana industry that is rooted in racial and economic justice.

Juan Cartagena, President and General Counsel of Latino Justice PRLDEF, speaking at the Start SMART campaign launch.

The Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA)

DPA and our allies in the Start SMART NY campaign are working to pass the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA). This would allow the responsible use of marijuana by adults 21 and over within a tightly regulated system. 

Smart regulation can support community well-being and safety while building a diverse, socially equitable industry that strengthens all parts of our state.

What’s included in the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act?

  • Vital protections against housing and employment discrimination and addresses additional devastating impacts of marijuana prohibition in the fields of immigration and child welfare
  • Protections for young people that reduce their access to marijuana and resources for comprehensive, reality-based drug education
  • A licensing system that favors small businesses and family farmers, not large corporations, including co-op and microbusiness licenses that can reduce barriers to entry for people with less access to capital and traditional avenues of financing
  • Social equity licensing and small business incubator programs for individuals impacted by prohibition to participate in the industry
  • Makes tax revenue available for efforts that will invest in communities harmed by the war on drugs and mass incarceration through job training, economic empowerment, and youth development programming, plus funding for public education and drug treatment
  • Significant updates and improvements for the medical marijuana and hemp farming programs

Learn more about our efforts to Start SMART in New York and join the campaign here.

Ensuring Safe Access to Medical Marijuana

In 2016, New York became the 23rd state to roll out its medical marijuana program. But this is not enough. Patients still struggle to gain access to their medication. The law has been criticized as being one of the most restrictive and burdensome programs in the country.

DPA is dedicated to improving legal access to medical marijuana for patients with chronic and debilitating illnesses in New York State. In 2016, we successfully amended regulations, which now allow nurse practitioners and physician's assistants to certify patients for medical marijuana. We also advocated for chronic pain to be added as a qualifying condition for medical marijuana – a huge victory for patients and boost for the program.

If passed, the MRTA would improve the medical marijuana program by expanding the forms of cannabis available in the program, increasing the qualifying conditions, and much more.

Marijuana Legalization and Regulation
Medical Marijuana