On the morning of March 31st, New York, home to the city once considered to be the marijuana arrest capital of the world, became the 15th state to legalize the recreational use of marijuana. Just hours later, the Governor signed into law an act dramatically limiting the use of solitary confinement in state prisons and county jails. The passage of both historic bills comes after years of advocacy by directly-impacted individuals and Black and Brown activists and provides a lesson in the power of community organizing.  

The Marihuana Regulation and Taxation Act (MRTA), heralded by some advocates as the “gold standard” for legalization, will have swift and profound effects on the state’s marijuana laws. Effective immediately, the legislation allows individuals aged 21 and over to possess up to three ounces of marijuana or twenty-four grams of concentrated marijuana such as oils in a public place and up to five pounds in their own homes. Unlike other states that have legalized recreational use, New York will allow individuals to smoke marijuana anywhere where smoking tobacco is allowed, although localities may create regulations to restrict smoking in public. In New York City, individuals are currently allowed to smoke on sidewalks, but not in most parks or beaches.

Other portions of the Act are estimated to take a year to implement as the state develops its regulatory framework and issues licenses. Eventually, New Yorkers will be able to purchase marijuana and cannabis products from dispensaries, use services to have marijuana and cannabis products delivered, consume cannabis products in lounges, and grow up to six plants in their homes. Localities may opt out of allowing such businesses in their community. 

The legislation also significantly expands the state’s medical cannabis program. Until now, only a small number of diseases, such as AIDS, cancer, and epilepsy, made patients eligible for medical use. With the passage of the MRTA, doctors and practitioners will be able to recommend medical marijuana for any condition. 

Most notably, New York’s legislation creates a framework that prioritizes racial equity and explicitly seeks to address the harm caused by the War on Drugs in Black, Brown, and low-income communities. Forty percent of the estimated $350 million in tax revenue from marijuana sales will be allocated towards Black and Latinx communities, who made up 94% of all marijuana-related arrests by the NYPD in 2020.  Additionally, folks who were convicted of offenses which are no longer criminalized will have their records automatically expunged. The Act also provides that roughly half of all marijuana business licenses go to individuals who have been adversely affected by prohibition. Furthermore, the MRTA seeks to avoid the monopolization and consolidation of marijuana markets that other states have seen by creating a tiered system that will allow most businesses to obtain only one of ten types of licenses. 

Within hours of the MRTA being signed into law, the NYPD, the nation’s largest police force, issued a four-page memo to its officers outlining the department’s new protocol in response to the “sweeping changes” brought by the state legislature’s “overhaul” of the laws governing the possession, sale and use of marijuana. The memo provides that smoking marijuana is no longer “a basis for an approach, stop, summons, arrest, or search,” and that New Yorkers may smoke marijuana “almost anywhere that cigarette smoking is allowed,” including on stoops or sidewalks. The memo instructs that although smoking while behind the wheel remains a criminal offense, it no longer can serve as the basis for a vehicle search. Additionally, the smell of marijuana alone cannot constitute probable cause for a vehicle search. Furthermore, hand-to-hand exchanges of the legal amount of marijuana are allowed as long as no money is also exchanged. The memo explains that there is currently no mechanism for officers to reprimand people under the age of 21 for possession in “small amounts,” but that they may be able to issue a civil summons in the future. However, individuals under the legal age caught smoking in public spaces where smoking is prohibited may still be subject to a criminal or juvenile court summons. 

Later that same day Governor Cuomo, long viewed as an “impediment” to progressive criminal legal system reform, signed into law the Humane Alternatives to Long-Term (HALT) Solitary Confinement Act, considered to be the nation’s “strongest” anti-solitary legislation. The HALT Act, which will go into effect on March 31st, 2022, restricts the use of solitary confinement for all incarcerated people for more than 15 days and forbids its use entirely for “vulnerable incarcerated populations,” including people aged 21 and younger or 55 and older, individuals with a disability, and folks who are pregnant, up to 8 weeks postpartum, or caring for a child in a correctional facility. The passage of the HALT ACT is a “great first step,” explains TeAna Taylor of the Release Aging People in Prison campaign. “Solitary confinement is torture. What hopes do we have as progressives if we can’t end torture?”

Both pieces of historic legislation are the result of years of advocacy by community-based organizations like VOCAL-NY, the Drug Policy Alliance, Citizen Action, the Start SMART New York Coalition, the Releasing Aging People in Prisons (RAPP) campaign, and the New York Campaign for Alternatives to Isolated Confinement, as well as state legislators committed to racial justice and ending mass incarceration. Legislation to legalize recreational cannabis use was first introduced in 2013 by Democratic majority leader, Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes (D-Buffalo). During the eight years that followed, proponents of legalization tirelessly organized throughout the state. In 2019, advocates almost passed legalization in the state budget, but negotiations fell apart over concerns that the legislation did not do enough to remedy past harms caused by the criminalization and the over-policing of Black and Brown communities. Refusing to settle for a bill that did not reinvest revenues from legalization into communities most harmed by marijuana prohibition, legislators like Assemblywoman Stokes and her co-sponsor Senator Krueger rejected the watered-down policy proposed by Governor Cuomo. 

Similarly, although the HALT Act gained enough votes in both houses of the state legislature back in 2019, Governor Cuomo refused to support the bill and Democratic leadership did not bring it to the floor for a vote. Instead, they struck a deal with the Governor, who then released his own administrative proposal that would have capped the number of days a person is allowed to spend in solitary confinement to thirty. A year later, the proposed rules were never adopted, leading anti-solitary confinement organizers to describe Cuomo’s proposals as nothing more than a “press release” and “a lie.” As a result, the HALT Act was introduced again during the 2021 session, where it passed by a veto-proof supermajority in both houses.  

The tumultuous path and ultimate passage of both of these bills illustrate what is possible when elected officials follow the lead of those directly-impacted and refuse to accept short-term concessions. As put by Danielle Sered, executive director of the restorative justice organization Common Justice in Brooklyn, “It is critical to remember that a version of legalization that did not center repair to Black and Brown people could have been won years ago. The organizers who refused that compromise are to credit for the scope and impact of this win.”

Photo Credit: The New York Times