N.J. Lawmakers Advance Second Bill To Decriminalize Weed

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As people across the state and country continue to protest police brutality and mass incarceration that has disproportionately affected the Black community, New Jersey lawmakers have moved a second bill seeking to decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana.

The measure, a merger of A1897 and A4269, advanced from the Assembly Community Development and Affairs Committee Monday morning. It seeks to reform criminal and civil justice issues by lessening the legal consequences for marijuana possession and broadening awareness of expungement relief.

The bill proposes to regrade offenses for possessing or distributing less than five pounds of marijuana or one pound of hashish. Currently, having between one ounce and five pounds of marijuana results in punishments of three to five years in prison and fines of up to $25,000. Distributing less than one ounce can land someone in jail for up to 18 months and levy a $10,000 fine on them.

Enforcing cannabis possession laws costs the state around $127 million each year, according to the Assembly Majority Office. A recent report from the American Civil Liberties Union found New Jersey police arrest Black people for weed offenses at 3.5 times the rate they arrest white people, despite similar rates of use among both groups.

Even as 61% of New Jersey voters say they would vote yes on a ballot question seeking to spur a legal weed industry in the Garden State, police continue to arrest nearly 100 people a day for marijuana offenses.

The civil unrest around the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor have shed a spotlight on police brutality nationally, reigniting debates about the broad powers granted to police and the ways departments enforce laws in communities of color. Those who argue for cannabis reform say decriminalizing marijuana can lead to less interactions between police and Black people, and allow them to avoid drug stops that could turn fatal.

Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly, D-Passaic, the bill’s prime sponsor, said current weed penalties have ravaged Black communities, leaving many unable to take out loans, apply for housing or find good paying jobs because of convictions on their records.

“This gives them a good chance to be productive citizens, and it’s also a move in the right direction to give people a clean slate,” he said during the hearing.

Members of the state Senate introduced a broader decriminalization bill earlier this month that would stop arrests for possession of up to a pound of weed, but would not legalize its use. Instead of jail time, though, those found with marijuana would receive first a written warning, and then a $25 fine for subsequent offenses.

Senators have yet to consider the bill in a committee.

The bill in the state Assembly does not go as far, and comes from two measures that initially established varying possession amounts and fines. A1897 called for decriminalizing possession of less than 10 grams of weed and replacing arrests with fines of $150 for a first violation, a $200 fine for a second and $500 for each following offense.

Some of those who testified, and Assemblyman Ryan Peters, R-Burlington, said they had not yet seen the text of the A4269. Peters chose to abstain from the vote, noting he had received the bill less than an hour before the committee meeting began.

A brief summary of A4269 said the bill “provides for certain criminal and civil justice reforms, particularly with respect to legal consequences associated with certain marijuana and hashish offenses as well as broadening awareness of available expungement relief.”

It imposes fines of $50 for up to possession of up to two ounces of marijuana, and levels new, scaled penalties for amounts above that threshold. The committee substitute, made public later Monday, uses the two ounces and $50 fine as the base for decriminalization, rather than the 10 grams outlined in A1897.

Marijuana reform advocates who testified before the committee Monday said they supported the bill as a way to address the disproportionate arrests of Black people. But two, Charlana McKeithen of Garden State NORML and DeVaughn Ward of the Marijuana Policy Project, said they preferred the Senate bill previously introduced for its sweeping reforms.

“It has a more broad social justice position,” McKeithen said, urging lawmakers to amend the Assembly bill to mirror the Senate proposal.

Ward also said the fines in the Assembly bill could harm those found with weed in their possession, particularly those already facing economic hardship as a result of the coronavirus crisis.

“The fines outlined are a tad excessive,” he said. “The fines that are outlined could prevent individuals from making rent, keeping the lights on, putting food on the table.”

A1897 also initially called for some people to enter drug treatment programs. The controversial proposal comes from legislation by Sen. Ron Rice, D-Essex, that marijuana advocates have criticized. That language is absent from the merger.

Still, those who testified said the time for waiting on marijuana reform has run out.

“It’s time for the change we seek,” Assemblywoman Angelia McKnight, D-Hudson, said in a statement. “New Jersey residents are not happy with the status quo and we need to move in a direction of compassion for the communities that have long been targeted by current regulatory criteria. The call for action, for social justice reform, is resounding throughout our nation. And it begins with legislation such as this.”