In April, New York passed one of the most progressive recreational cannabis laws in the country, joining a small but growing number of states that now allow adult-use cannabis. On top of allowing adults aged 21 and over to grow, purchase and possess cannabis, the bill also provided provisions for dismissing prior cannabis-related charges and expunging such offenses from people’s records. However, more than one month after New York state legalized recreational cannabis, a number of New York residents still have pending cases and even arrest warrants for offenses that are now considered legal under state law.
Each of the five administrative units, or boroughs, in New York City has got its own district attorney’s office, and public defenders in the Bronx have accused the Bronx DA of dragging his feet rather than making haste to dismiss pending cannabis-related cases. On April 20, 2021, the public defenders sent Bronx DA Darcel Clark’s office a letter urging him to conduct the affairs of his office in line with the Marijuana Regulation and Taxation Act (“MRTA”). The defenders estimate that there are currently hundreds of pending cases involving serious charges such as criminal possession or sale of cannabis that are currently legal or considered lesser violations.
Despite the passage of the recreational cannabis law, those cases are still hovering over people’s heads, says Eli Northrup, a lawyer from Bronx Defenders. For instance, 41 people from the Bronx have been arraigned before court on marijuana charges, and their court dates are coming up. There are also cases involving individuals who, after being arrested, were given desk appearance tickets to present themselves in court as well as warrants issued for people who failed to show up before court or did not pay their fine.
Northrup says this group probably includes individuals with warrants that are decades old, making it the largest category of individuals impacted by the Bronx DA’s inaction. Ruben Fernandez, another attorney allied with the Bronx Defenders, says plenty of judges have been throwing out cannabis-related charges as accused persons appear in their courts. Ideally, individuals who were charged with offenses that are now considered legal would have their records automatically expunged of the offense.
However, some issues such as clearing warrants may take some time, exposing people with such warrants to the risk of arrest if an officer stops them before the process is complete. In fact, some people may not even be aware that there are warrants out for their arrest, Fernandez says. Court dates are an extra hustle, causing people to lose work hours and forcing them to find child care, which can be quite costly.
According to a spokesperson from the Bronx DA’s office, the DA is currently evaluating cases to determine if they fit the criteria for dismissal.
It is unfortunate that some prosecutors seem to be in no hurry to drop charges that can no longer be sustained under the current marijuana laws in New York state; moreover, this is coming at a time when several companies in different jurisdictions, such as RYAH Group Inc. (CSE: RYAH), have a range of products including the RYAH Smart Pen, which help patients take precise doses of their medical cannabis. This illustrates how unnecessary it is to criminalize a substance with therapeutic potential.
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