NJ: Marijuana Legalization Bill At The Mercy Of Trenton Legislators

Photo Credit: Karen Rouse

Jaleel Terrell should be looking forward to a bright future with a list of job prospects. The 25-year-old from Elizabeth, N.J., is an honors student in Kean University’s public administration program, a juvenile justice consultant for the Anne E. Casey Foundation in Baltimore, and a full-time cashier at Whole Foods.

But he fears his future could be threatened by a simple mistake he made six years ago: He got busted for smoking a joint.

“I remember even doing an application to work at my local community center down the street from my house,” Terrell recalled, during a break from tutoring at Kean. “I was not allowed to work for this summer program while I was in college because they highlighted my record.”

He’s at graduate student with a 3.9 GPA and yet he couldn’t get a summer job at a community center for kids.

Terrell is hoping a proposed bill to legalize marijuana could offer him a second chance. The bill’s sponsor,  Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Linden, also went to Kean University, and represents Terrell’s district. Scutari’s bill calls for the legalization, regulation, and taxation of recreational marijuana. Gov. Phil Murphy, a Democrat who campaigned on a promise to legalize weed, has projected that marijuana sales can generate $60 million towards his $37 billion budget.

But that’ll only happen if the legislature passes it into law. And right now, even Scutari acknowledges he doesn’t have the votes.

“There’s a lot of uncommitted. A few yesses. A few nos. And there’s dozens of uncommitted,” he said. It’s hard to nail down how much support he has, but legislators in Trenton suggest he’s about 5 votes short in the Senate and as much as 10 in the Assembly. Among the issues they’re wrestling with is how many marijuana stores  to allow in the state, how much to tax it, and whether someone with a criminal background can be involved in a marijuana business.

A recent poll found that 59 percent of New Jerseyans support the legalization of small amounts of pot for recreational use. That’s up from four years ago, when it was 48 percent. But Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, says citizens are not clamoring for legalization, so the legislature is under no real pressure to pass it.

Murray said another challenge to passing a weed bill is a group of legislators from heavily black and Latino districts who will never support it.

“Their fear is that legalizing marijuana and the sale of marijuana could spill out onto the streets and lead to other proliferation of drug crimes that would hit their community harder than it would other communities,” Murray said.

An even bigger problem may be Democratic legislators who are using the marijuana bill as leverage to get the governor to address their own priorities. Senate President Stephen Sweeney has opposed the governor’s proposal to tax millionaires and his school funding bill — and he’s used his power in the Senate to slow down confirmation of Murphy’s cabinet appointments.

Murray said legislators also want the governor to address pensions. And, until he does, they’re not likely to give in on marijuana. “It’s a bargaining chip at the end of the day,” he said.

Scutari said he also has to figure out how to meet the demands of civil rights advocates, who want him to draft a bill with a provision to clear the records of people with past marijuana charges, without losing potential yes votes among more conservative Senators who are still on the fence.

“I’m open-minded,” he said. “I just don’t want to lose votes on the other end for people who are still undecided in terms of automatic expungement and people being able to participate in the industry with prior criminal histories.”

Jaleel Terrell says legalization is a social justice issue; blacks who smoke marijuana in New Jersey are three times more likely to get arrested than whites who smoke it, a point Scutari agrees with. Terrell says not including a provision for clearing the records of people like him shifts the bill’s focus to making revenue, rather than correcting a social injustice.

“This is solely a social justice issue because it’s impacting minorities,” he said. You have a perfect example in me.”

Terrell remembers the day of his pot arrest clearly. It was November 8, 2012. He was a sophomore at Kean, and disappointed about his academic performance.

“I was upset at a particular test I was taking. I didn’t do so well,” he said, during a break from tutoring on campus. Terrell said a friend came by and they decided to walk to a bodega a few blocks from his house.

“He had a marijuana cigarette rolled up. And we were just smoking it on our way to the store.”

But a neighborhood police officer spotted them. Terrell said the officer threw him against a fence, searched his pockets. Terrell ended up arrested with a record he is reminded of with each job application.

That’s not lost on some legislators. Senator Joseph Cryan, D-Union, is a former county sheriff and he doesn’t want to legalize.

“As a father and a grandfather. I don’t think it should be legal,” Cryan said.  “We don’t seem to need in New Jersey the opportunity to go in and buy something to get us an immediate high.”

But he sees the impact that the criminal justice system has had on people like Terrell. Cryan says even though he opposes legalization, if a law passes, he would want it to include expungement for people like Terrell for possession or sale of small amounts.

“What you don’t want to do is have sins of the past — after you’ve changed this law, hold back young people especially, but all people, from having opportunities for the future,” he said.