BUFFALO, N.Y. — It's true holding small amounts of marijuana in New York has not technically been a criminal offense for more than 40 years.

  • Assembly majority leader said 1977 decriminalization had technical glitch
  • Latest bill is aimed at keeping people out of jail
  • She said lawmakers who opposed full legalization have "lack of understanding"

But for many people in predominantly black and brown communities, it was decriminalization in name only.

"The problem was there was a technical glitch," Assembly Majority Leader Crystal Peoples-Stokes, D-Buffalo said. "They said, if it's in public view, it's illegal. If you're smoking outside, it's illegal."

There are others, like Rashawn Pennick, who was searched by an officer and found with less than a gram but then held in custody for another offense.

"Once I got out of jail the next morning, I ended up losing my job for no call no show," Pennick said.

The latest decriminalization bill passed by the state Legislature last week aims at stopping these scenarios by eliminating loopholes that allow law enforcement to put people in jail for low level offenses or stop and frisk them on the suspicion of marijuana.

"There's any number of issues can really unravel in your life, even with a very short custodial stay," Rebecca Town, Legal Aid Bureau of Buffalo, said.

Peoples-Stokes, who sponsored the bill, said another major component of the legislation allows for expungement of potentially hundreds of thousands of arrest records.

"This hopefully will give these gentlemen behind me, as well as young ladies and young men across the state of New York, an opportunity for a new direction," she said.

Peoples-Stokes said the onus is on the state to notify and help people clear their records. The bill becomes effective 30 days after the governor signs it so she said there will be time to prepare.

"Keep in mind that most of the people that work in the Office of Court Administrations as well as DCJS, these are professional people," she said. "It's not going to take them that long to create a data system that goes through the criminal justice. They have the records already."

Although she said expungement was a major component of her bill, Peoples-Stokes was pushing for full marijuana legalization. She said the legislators who opposed it, Long Island senators specifically, were not in line with their constituents.

"They were speaking for themselves and how they feel about a drug that's been, I would say, not only criminalized but almost villainized for the last 30 years," she said. "There's lack of understanding. Hopefully their voters will speak to them."

Peoples-Stokes said she's still confident marijuana will eventually be legalized.