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New York legalizes pot: what you need to know

Updated: Apr. 1, 2021 at 12:00 PM EDT
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WATERTOWN, N.Y. (WWNY) - If you’re so inclined, go ahead and light up. Smoking pot is now legal in New York.

But hold off on growing your own.

And don’t expect to be able to buy it legally anytime soon.

With Governor Cuomo having signed the law Wednesday morning which legalizes possession of cannabis - and sets up a legal framework for selling the drug - here are answers to some frequently asked questions.

When can you legally smoke and possess marijuana?

Right now.

“The provisions in the legislation related to possession and use took immediate effect upon the signature from Governor Cuomo, so right now it’s legal in New York to possess up to three ounces of marijuana on your person,” said Carly Wolf, State Policies Manager for the pro-legalization group NORML.

Where can you smoke marijuana?

New York has an expansive law, when it comes to “where.” Basically, any place where you can smoke tobacco, you can smoke pot, though Wolf notes “If you do smoke in unauthorized places you could be subject to a civil penalty, which would just be a small fine.”

Examples of prohibited places, according to published reports: schools, workplaces, vehicles.

Where and when will you be able to buy marijuana legally?

The state is setting up a system for growing and selling pot, to be run through the new Office of Cannabis Management. You’ll eventually buy your pot from specialized shops, or at marijuana bars, or through delivery services, all regulated by the state.

As for when, NORML’s Wolf anticipates “sales starting sometime in 2022, hopefully on the earlier side rather than later, but I think it all depends on how quickly the new Office of Cannabis Management can get the rules decided on.”

Individual municipalities, (think towns, villages, cities) can move to ban the sale of pot, but they can’t make using it illegal. And citizens in those municipalities can force a vote on any proposed ban.

In the meantime, can you grow your own?

No. You will eventually be allowed to grow a small number of plants at home, (six per person, up to 12 per household) but only after sales have been up and operating for 18 months. Remember, this is all about the state making money.

If you have a criminal record for possessing a small amount of marijuana, what happens now?

It should go away without you having to do anything, according to Melissa Moore, the New York State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance.

“When the governor signed the bill, the automatic expungement process kicks for New York State. So the Office of court affairs at the state level will actually be tasked with making sure those expungements take place,” she said.

This potentially affects a lot of people, and is one of the biggest changes to come with legalization. Moore says more than 800,000 low level marijuana arrests were made over the last 25 years. Presumably, many of those arrests will now be removed from official records.

Moore says the arrests had an “utterly devastating” effect, and that now cannabis use can’t - in most cases - be a reason to deny someone a job, or admission to school, or housing.

“There will not be the basis for discrimination just because of cannabis use any more, because it’s a lawful activity.”

If the police stop you when you’re driving and smell marijuana, what can and can’t they do?

The whole question of driving while impaired by marijuana was a last minute issue on the way to legalization. Where the law ended up was - police can use marijuana odor as evidence you’re impaired.

But they can’t go beyond that, says Moore.

“The officer can use that as a reason just to search the immediate area around the driver, very similar to the provisions around alcohol, but it doesn’t mean they can suddenly search through that person’s trunk, do all sorts of other things that have had real negative impacts on people for decades.”

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