NJ: Legal Marijuana Foes Offer A Compromise: Decriminalize It

Photo Credit: Alexandra Pais

Frustrated by the focus on legalizing recreational marijuana in New Jersey, a bipartisan group of state lawmakers Thursday introduced a bill that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of pot by treating it like a traffic offense in the state.

The bill would allow a person caught with less than 10 grams of cannabis to face a fine of $100 the first time, $200 for the second offense and $500 for future violations. Offenders now are subject to six months in jail, a $500 fine, or both.

Doing away with the threat of jail time would achieve the social justice concerns often mentioned by legalization proponents, like Gov. Phil Murphy, said state Sen. Ronald Rice D-Essex, one of the prime sponsors of the legislation.

Whites and blacks use marijuana at about the same rate but blacks are three times more likely to face arrest and incarceration.

The bill also expedites the expungement process for past marijuana arrests, allows municipalities to keep all but $50 from every fine, and makes treatment services available if offenders are determined to be marijuana-dependent.

“This whole legalization stuff needs to slow down. I think folk need to listen to Sen. (Robert) Singer and myself, and people in the community,” Rice said during a press conference at the Statehouse in Trenton, accompanied by clergy and members of NJ RAMP, Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy.

“Marijuana legalization is not the step forward for social justice that has been promised,” said Bishop Jethro James, president of the Newark/North Jersey Committee of Black Churchmen. “”In fact, it’s just the opposite, as the marijuana industry routinely targets vulnerable communities as profit centers. Just take a look at Denver, where the number of pot shops littering the city is greater than the number of McDonalds and Starbucks combined.”

State Sen. Robert Singer, R-Ocean, also a prime sponsor, said he and his colleagues offer this bill as a compromise.

“We are not putting people in jail. We are helping them get treatment if they need it,” Singer said. “What bothered all of us is we are going to try to solve the woes of the state by tax money coming in from marijuana. Shame on us.”

Singer predicted people from neighboring states seeking legal weed would drive to New Jersey — especially the shore district he represents — and drive family tourists out.

“Somebody said it would be good for tourism. Shame on us if that is how we want to bring in tourism,” Singer said.

The decriminalization bill faces tough odds.

Murphy made legalizing cannabis sales a platform of his campaign. The Democrat has said it would bring needed revenue to state coffers, and end the arrests of people for low-level offenses. Decriminalization has not been discussed.

Rice and Singer will need to convince state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, that the bill ought to be scheduled for a committee hearing, then be posted for a vote by the full Senate. Sweeney controls which bills live or die in his house, and he is an enthusiastic supporter of legalizing cannabis, although no hearings are scheduled yet for legalization bill.

But Murphy and Sweeney also know they are facing opposition among Senate Democrats, a handful of whom have told NJ Advance Media they would never vote yes.

Rice expressed optimism Sweeney would give his compromise bill a chance.

“I would like to think all of the years I have been here — and it’s been a lot of years — and my relationship working with Sen. Sweeney,  although we disagree on some things, I would still like to think … that there is fairness and justice in the process itself,” Rice said.

Sweeney told NJ Advance Media he hasn’t spoken to Rice about the bill but he will “have a conversation with him.”

“Believe me, every senator that introduces a bill doesn’t have an obligation to talk to me about it,” Sweeney said. “I’ve got to look at it,” he said of the bill.

A source familiar with Sweeney’s thinking said there’s no chance the legislation advances while legalization is on the table. The source spoke on condition of anonymity to discuss a sensitive subject.

Six years ago, the state Assembly tried advancing a marijuana decriminalization bill, but it would have allowed a person to possess up to 15 grams, enough for 30 joints. Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, sponsored a competing measure that would have permitted possession of 50 grams. But lawmakers abandoned the effort after Republican Gov. Chris Christie promised to veto the legislation.

Rice said he was open to negotiating how much cannabis would be permitted under his bill.

One pro-marijuana industry group spun Rice’s bill as “one step closer to eventually legalizing and regulating a new cannabis industry.”

“This legislation goes a long way in addressing the social injustice surrounding our youth and people of different ethnicities” said Dara Servis, executive director of the NJ Cannabis Industry Association. “People of color are targeted and arrested at an alarmingly high rate and this could aid in offsetting the injustice within our community.”