As the legalization of recreational marijuana in New York state is starting to seem less like a liberal’s far-reaching wet dream and more imminent as the year progresses, it’s become necessary to evaluate the possibilities involved with such legality. Today, recreational marijuana use is legal in 10 states, as well as Washington D.C., while 33 other states allow medical marijuana use. Recently, Gov. Andrew Cuomo has been pushing for recreational marijuana use in New York, predicting a bill authorizing its legalization might result from a state legislature agreement by June. The majority of voters in New York state additionally support this legalization, but further, the majority also supports erasing past criminal convictions for possession. Often paired with other policies of legalization and decriminalization, 10 states in the past four years have pushed for laws that would expunge marijuana convictions, including New York state. Cuomo’s proposal would clear low-level possession convictions that make up the majority of marijuana-associated arrests through revisions to current record-sealing procedures. Though California’s expungement law is the only one that’s currently been passed and subsequently enforced, the growing support for such actions highlights their merits.
While most arrests for possession are for petty and small amounts, past convictions perpetually hold individuals back in society, becoming hurdles to finding housing, jobs or gaining child custody. This factor has yet to proportionately target all users, however, as arrests associated with possession charges target some groups of people more than others. Unsurprisingly, minorities have been dealt the losing hand. Significant racial bias in arrests and criminal proceedings remains prevalent and widespread throughout the United States, and possession charges follow suit. Black people specifically are found to be three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession compared to their white counterparts, despite research finding roughly equal usage rates between the groups.
With the legislation in place enforcing the legality of marijuana, the petty possession charges that hold disproportionately over certain groups stand the chance of diminishing. Clearing past records for marijuana convictions only further fights back against an overextending enforcement of the law inextricably tied with race discrimination. Record-clearing benefits those who have unjustly suffered the most under the war on weed, and the greater racist war on drugs. It gives them the newfound possibility to stand on equal legal footing with those who possess the blessed ability to generally evade the harsher side of the law’s wrath. Expunging criminal records removes the ambiguity associated with drug charges, wiping the slate clean for people of color and giving them a fresh start.
As the predominately white legal marijuana industry rakes in billions of dollars of sales through this turned tide in public sentiments, it seems shameful that people of color should remain subjected to jailing and a lifetime of patronization from their criminal records by policies others profit off of or simply remain unaffected by. While magazine covers and advertisements flaunt and praise white marijuana use with its legalization, they fail to truthfully represent the people of color who are judged differently for their weed use. The ability to push back against the racism that got weed criminalized in the first place means remedying those who have suffered disproportionately under racial ideology. As legalization has positioned itself as a move for social justice, its extension shouldn’t be severed before its full capabilities can be reached. Providing the opportunity to expunge not only debilitating criminal records, but also the socially misconstrued ideology and negative connotations weed is associated with, is less of a matter of equality and more a stride toward greater equality and justice.
Miranda Jackson-Nudelman is a sophomore majoring in political science.