New Jersey lawmakers have introduced a bill that would decrease punishments for marijuana possession from arrests to fines, reviving a years-long effort as the nation grapples with racial bias and brutality in policing.
The new bill, S2535, introduced to the state Senate Thursday afternoon, would decriminalize possession and distribution of less than one pound of weed, but would not make marijuana legal. Violators would receive a written warning for a first offense and a face fines of $25 for second and subsequent offenses.
“We have been over-penalizing marijuana offenses for far too long. We all know it is not nearly as dangerous as heroin or cocaine and it has no place being classified with them in statute,” Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson, a bill sponsor, said in a statement.
“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.”
Currently, possessing from one ounce to five pounds is an offense punishable by three to five years in prison and up to a $25,000 fine. Under the new bill, anyone caught with more than one pound of weed would receive a disorderly persons offense, punishable by six months in jail and up to $1,000 in fines.
The measure also bars police from stopping and searching people because they smell weed, and allows those on probation or parole to use marijuana without it impacting their release.
Sponsored by Cunningham, Sens. Teresa Ruiz and Ron Rice, both D-Essex, it’s the first decriminalization bill to come about since lawmakers abandoned efforts to legalize marijuana through the state Legislature. Instead, voters will decide on a ballot question on Nov. 3.
Lawmakers in the state Assembly said in November they had begun discussing a decriminalization bill, but never produced one.
Rice introduced a decriminalization bill last year, but came under fire by activists for a mandate that would push those caught with weed to attend drug treatment programs. A second bill introduced in the Assembly in May 2019 sought to decriminalize up to two ounces of weed and levy a $50 fine on those found with the small amounts. It made it out of an Assembly committee, but never passed a full floor vote.
In December, Murphy signed a law reforming the state’s expungement system. It also allowed those previously found guilty of possession of up to five pounds of marijuana to have their records cleared, but did nothing to stop new arrests.
Police have arrested nearly 1 million people in New Jersey on marijuana charges in the last 30 years, according to the state judiciary. That gives the Garden State one of the highest marijuana arrest rates in the nation. If those convicted sought to clear their records, they have faced one of the most burdensome expungement systems in the country, as reported last year by NJ Advance Media.
Reform has languished, and police have continued to arrest some 94 people a day in the state for minor marijuana offenses, with black people getting taken to jail at 3.5 times the rate of their white counterparts.
As protesters fill streets across the nation to decry the death of George Floyd, who died in Minneapolis last week after a police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes, racial bias in policing has become a national conversation. Cannabis use has long led to the disproportionate arrest of black people, and many fear that a run-in with police over something small, like marijuana use, could lead to their death in police custody.
Ruiz said the bill was in the works long before the protests made headlines.
“We started working on this in March, before the pandemic hit but unfortunately that slowed things down,” she said. “I’ve been determined to get this done for some time but it does take on greater meaning at this moment when more people are focused on the need for social justice, criminal justice and equal rights.”
That New Jersey has failed to decriminalize marijuana thus far puzzles activists. New York City made the move last year, and Philadelphia replaced arrests with fines in 2014, working on the municipal level instead of waiting for statewide action.
Some say political pressure has likely kept municipalities from decriminalizing marijuana locally. Gov. Phil Murphy and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, both Democrats, said previously they did not support decriminalization without legalization, fearing the move would bolster the black market. But they have since said they are open to the idea.
And even if voters approve the ballot question on Nov. 3, marijuana arrests won’t stop immediately. Lawmakers must still pass enabling legislation and could spend months or even years approving new pot shops and getting them running.
“Decriminalization is something that we’ll need as a parallel to legalization,” said Chris Goldstein of the marijuana law reform group Garden State NORML, noting that legalization does not address the arrests of those under the age of 21 for marijuana use. “There’s nothing in legislation that covers that issue, in the bills that have been introduced. The amendment (on the ballot this November) is a simply worded bill that includes nothing about social justice.”
The bill also requires local law enforcement to submit data to the Uniform Crime Reporting Unit with each incident that requires a written warning or more action, and to detail the race, ethnicity, gender and age of the person committing the violation.
Since the coronavirus outbreak began in New Jersey in early March, decriminalization efforts fell to the side. But advocates say decriminalizing marijuana is relevant to stopping as many as 100 arrests in the state a day, and keeping people out of jails where the virus can spread easily.
“To see everything coming to a fore today, and in the last week, I have been appealing to every elected official that is in my list to take some of the easiest steps possible to restore some justice,” Goldstein said. “And certainly some marijuana reform and the racial bias involved in the policing of that is one of the easiest fixes we can have.”
The state Assembly must also take up the bill, and it must pass votes in both chambers before Murphy can sign it into law.