In the lead up to a statewide referendum on marijuana legalization in New Jersey, lawmakers have filed a new, more incremental bill, that would make it so people are no longer subject to jail time or criminal penalties for low-level cannabis offenses in the meantime.
Under the legislation, those caught for the first time in possession of or distributing up to a pound of marijuana would instead be subject to a written warning, with subsequent offenses carrying community service or a civil fine of $25.
The bill was introduced on Thursday, the tenth consecutive day of nationwide protests against police violence following the killing of George Floyd. All three of the lawmakers sponsoring the measure urged it be passed in light of the drug war’s disproportionate impact on people of color.
“The War on Drugs has ravaged communities of color for too long. While we await voter approval of legalization, we cannot forget about those arrested and incarcerated every day on marijuana-related charges,” Sen. M. Theresa Ruiz (D), who serves as the body’s president pro tem, said. “By decriminalizing certain marijuana offenses, we can prevent countless unnecessary arrests and the attendant legal consequences over the next seven months.”
The measure, S2535, would also set up what lawmakers called “a new form of ‘virtual’ expungement,” which would automatically deem certain marijuana-related convictions not to have occurred, an act they said will remove the need for people to petition a court for an expungement. All records relating to unlawful possession or distribution would be sealed, with other provisions aiming to prevent authorities from discussing expunged records or discriminating against people with marijuana arrests, charges or convictions.
Marijuana and other cannabis products would remain illegal under the bill, with possession and distribution remaining technically unlawful acts, despite the lighter penalties.
“We have been over-penalizing marijuana offenses for far too long,” another sponsor, Sen. Sandra Bolden Cunningham (D), said. “This legislation will right the ship, revising the damaging criminal codes put in place under the war on drugs, which were intentionally created to target the black community.”
A comprehensive legalization bill failed to win a majority of lawmakers’ support last year—they instead punted the issue for voters to decide in a referendum in November—but the new decriminalization proposal looks far more likely to succeed in the legislature. The New Jersey Globe conducted a whip count in December of last year and found “more than enough votes in the Senate to pass a decriminalization bill.”
The new legislation was initially due to come out in March but was delayed due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Regardless of which way the bill goes, New Jersey voters are slated to vote in November on the legalization referendum, which would regulate and tax cannabis products and allow storefront sales. And so far voters seem interested. In a poll released in April by Monmouth University, 61 percent of respondents said they planned to vote for the measure, while 34 percent said they’d vote against it.
Some legalization supporters worry that passing decriminalization could deflate public support for November’s referendum, but Ruiz, who also backs legalization, said the need to take action immediately is of primary concern.
Both Ruiz and Cunningham voted in favor of last year’s effort to legalize through the legislature. But Sen. Ronald Rice (D), the other decriminalization bill co-sponsor, has derided full legalization as a “colossal blunder.”
Rice has instead long supported decriminalization, which he argues achieves the same objectives without creating a legal industry subject to economic incentives.
“People don’t realize, particularly in urban communities, how it will affect their lives,” he said in May of last year. “In urban communities, neighborhoods will struggle against the spread of ‘marijuana bodegas’ disguised as dispensaries.”
On Thursday, Rice said in a statement that decriminalization was urgent, regardless of the legalization referendum. “Whether or not voters decide to legalize marijuana in November, this should not change our stance on moving forward with the decriminalization of marijuana,” he said. “We cannot wait until the fall while countless members of the black and brown communities are target for marijuana-related offenses. If this state really wants to push social justice reform without an economic reward, this is how you achieve that goal.”
Gov. Phil Murphy (D), who campaigned on and supports legalization, signed a bill in August 2019 that’s designed to streamline the expungement process for people with prior cannabis convictions.
Read a summary of the new marijuana decriminalization bill below: