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New York State Assembly Moves to Seal Cannabis Convictions, Expand Medical Marijuana Access

One bill would clear hundreds of thousands of minor convictions for pot possession, while another would grant opioid addicts access to medical cannabis treatments.

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Photo via iStock/ DenisTangneyJr

As New York politicians finally begin to broach the topic of cannabis legalization ahead of this year's elections, state lawmakers are working to advance two new bills to promote cannabis reform in the Empire State. The first of these bills would add opioid use disorder to the list of qualifying conditions for the state's limited medical marijuana program. The second bill would clear minor cannabis convictions for anyone busted for smoking up in public.

Last Wednesday, the State Assembly approved a bill to allow opioid addicts access to medical cannabis treatments. “This is a very serious problem in our society and this treatment works incredibly well,” said Assemblyman Daniel O'Donnell, the bill's sponsor, to the New York Daily News. “The treatment experts should have this in their tool box.” O'Donnell noted that medical cannabis can treat several symptoms of withdrawal, including nausea and anxiety, as well as ameliorate chronic pain symptoms without the side effects of opioids.

The bill will now move on to the state Senate, where its chances of success are less likely. State Sen. Diane Savino, a supporter of the bill, told the Daily News that she hopes the Assembly's approval will encourage the Legislature's higher chamber to act on the bill before the current legislative session ends next week. Savino added that the opioid bill might be absorbed into “a bigger, better bill” that would also increase the number of medical cannabis dispensaries in the state.

On the same day, the State Assembly also voted to pass the Marijuana Sealing Bill, which would automatically seal convictions for simple possession of marijuana in public view. An estimated 800,000 New Yorkers have been arrested for minor pot possession, leaving each of these individuals with criminal records that can block employment, education, and housing opportunities.

“As New York moves forward to reform marijuana enforcement and study the beneficial outcomes of legalization for the state, it is imperative that any efforts to legalize marijuana for adult use also address the mass criminalization of communities of color that has come as a product of the enforcement of marijuana prohibition,” Christopher Alexander, policy coordinator for the Drug Policy Alliance, said in a statement.

Despite its reputation as one of the most liberal-leaning states, New York politicians have remained conservative with respect to cannabis laws. The Marijuana Sealing Act has passed the state Assembly three times now, but the state Senate has struck it down every time.

The state has only managed to enact a very limited medical cannabis program, with a small number of qualifying conditions including cancer, HIV, Parkinson's disease, epilepsy, PTSD, and a few others.

More robust reform may finally be around the corner, however, as several recent candidates for governor have announced plans to legalize adult-use cannabis. This support has finally pushed incumbent Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state's Democratic Party, who formerly worked against legalization efforts, to finally endorse legal weed as of last month. While the Empire State has been slow to embrace marijuana reform, next year might look much different.

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