Medical Marijuana, Expungement Reforms Head To Final Vote And NJ May Decriminalize Weed

The NJ Senate, Trenton Photo: Shutterstock

TRENTON – While the legislative push to legalize weed might be dead for now in New Jersey, bills to expand the state’s medical marijuana program, overhaul the expungement process for related crimes and even decriminalize pot possession are inching toward becoming law.

The Assembly on Thursday is expected to vote on the Jake Honig Compassionate Use Medical Marijuana Act and legislation that would overhaul the process of expunging criminal records, including drug crimes. The Senate has a voting session scheduled for May 30.

Additionally, a measure that would decriminalize up to 2 ounces of marijuana — unauthorized users would be subject to a $50 civil penalty — was advanced by the Assembly Appropriations Committee, though a Senate version of the bill has yet to be introduced.

If signed into law, the medical marijuana expansion bill would allow patients to purchase up to 3 ounces of cannabis per month — up from 2 ounces — and legalize edible forms of medical marijuana. The sales tax on medical marijuana would be phased out by 2025.

“The state is about to take a major step in the evolution of how medical marijuana is available to our citizens,” said Assemblyman John Burzichelli, D-Gloucester, chairman of the Appropriations Committee. “There is clear proof of the value of having this choice available to people. We’re touching up, doing statutorily housekeeping today to make sure that happens in a fashion that lets people who need help can get it.

Medical marijuana expansion, which cleared both the Senate Health and Assembly Appropriations committees on Monday, has had bipartisan support in both the Senate and Assembly. Many experts, advocates and legislators believed the bill would breeze through Senate and Assembly votes, calling on Democratic leaders to let the bill go forward on its own.

“While the (medical marijuana) bill’s not perfect … this is still light years ahead of our present program, and it’s at a time when it’s exactly appropriate,” said bill sponsor Sen. Declan O’Scanlon, R-Monmouth, who in recent days has called for a quicker elimination of the sales tax, a 4-ounce monthly limit and a pilot program for patients to grow up to four cannabis plants at home.

“But there are no deal-killers in this bill,” he said.

The medical marijuana expansion and expungement bills originally were tied to the New Jersey marijuana legalization law as a way to entice fence-sitting legislators to vote “yes” on legalizing weed.

But last week, Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, announced that the legal weed bill wouldn’t be going forward. Instead, the issue likely will become a 2020 referendum.

Like medical marijuana expansion, the expungement bill cleared both committees.

If signed into law, it would make more crimes eligible for expungement — including offenses involving controlled dangerous substances — and cut down the wait time to three years. It would also establish an expedited expungement process for marijuana-related offenses and create an “e-filing” system for expungement petitions.

A new “clean slate” program would wipe away all offenses at once for anyone who has a clean record for 10 years after their last offense.

“Expungements are essential. They demonstrate that there has been a bona fide, good faith effort on behalf of the client to resume legal normalcy within the community,” said former Gov. Jim McGreevey, who later served as chairman of the New Jersey Reentry Corp. “That cleanser — that after a 10-year period of time, the entire record is expunged — enables someone to have a fresh start.

“If we don’t enable individuals to have the means to be gainfully employed, we will never bring them back into civil society.”

Decriminalization looming?
Less than 24 hours after Sweeney announced that marijuana legalization efforts would shift to 2020, Quijano introduced a bill that would “re-grade” marijuana possession crimes, essentially decriminalizing possession of up to 2 ounces of the drug.

Under current law, possession of “small amounts of marijuana” — defined as less than 50 grams — is a fourth-degree crime, which comes with a maximum sentence of 18 months imprisonment and a $10,000 fine.

But the fate of that bill was up-and-down on Monday. It was listed as one of only a few bills up for a vote by the Assembly Judiciary Committee, which Quijano chairs. But when the hearing began, Quijano announced that it would be held pending “further internal discussions.”

She later told reporters that the bill wouldn’t be discussed by the Assembly Appropriations Committee —but it was added to the agenda just a few minutes before the meeting started.

The bill passed by a 6-to-1 vote, with one abstention from Assemblyman Harold Wirths, R-Sussex.

If signed into law, Quijano’s decriminalization bill would deem possession of 2 ounces to 1 pound of marijuana as a disorderly persons offense on the first offense, with a maximum sentence of 6 months imprisonment and a $1,000 fine. The second or subsequent offenses would be a fourth degree crime.

Under current law, this is a third degree crime, with a maximum sentence of three to five years of imprisonment and a $25,000 fine.

Only possession of 1 pound to 5 pounds of marijuana would be considered a third-degree offense, under the new bill.

Anyone charged with possession of up to 5 pounds of marijuana before the law takes effect could immediately apply for expungement, under the proposed law. Anyone charged after the bill takes effect would have to wait 18 months before applying.

Offenders charged with possession of more than 5 pounds of marijuana can apply for expungement after a three-year waiting period.

The bill also provides “an array of civil protections” against employers and mortgage lenders who penalize or “target” anyone charged with a marijuana offense.