With implementation of the state’s medical marijuana law stalled in a legal limbo, a bipartisan group of legislators is looking to drastically reduce the penalties residents would face if caught with relatively small amounts of the drug.
The proposal to decriminalize possession of 15 grams or less of marijuana -- about a half-ounce -- would not apply to those who get a prescription through the state's medical marijuana program (once it is up and running). It's also important to note that the decriminalization bill applies only to possession, not to purchasing marijuana.
But Assemblyman Reed Gusciora, (D-Mercer) a prime sponsor of both measures, hopes the decriminalization bill would provide some relief for those who are now risking severe penalties for possession of marijuana, even if it is to treat chronic illness
Perhaps even more important, according to Gusciora, the bill would save precious public resources at a time when every taxpayer dollar is critical. The majority of drug cases involve people without a criminal record who were caught with a few joints – not dealers or distributors, said the assemblyman, a former municipal prosecutor.
"We just don't have the police resources" to keep arresting and prosecuting minor pot possession cases, Gusciora said. The bill mirrors efforts in New York and Connecticut, he said.
In addition, Gusciora said he's "disappointed" in Gov. Chris Christie’s efforts -- or lack thereof -- to get the state’s medical marijuana program operational. Signed into law by former Gov. Jon S. Corzine on his way out of office, the program is considered the most restrictive in the nation in how it tightly controls production, distribution and patient access to the drug. But it has yet to be fully implemented.
After months of debate over the regulations, the state has selected six sites that will grow and sell the drug to patients with certain diseases who have a prescription from a state-approved doctor. But since marijuana remains an illegal substance in both state and federal law, the governor has said he wants an assurance from the federal government that state officials will not be prosecuted for administering the medical marijuana program before giving the final go-ahead..
"The Governor made it clear that he is approaching implementation with reasonable and appropriate caution, particularly when it comes to the potentially serious conflicts with federal law and the associated risks posed to state employees charged with directing the program," his spokesman Kevin Roberts said last week.
A recent memo from the Justice Department was interpreted by supporters of the state’s medical marijuana law as an indication that Washington, D.C, would not interfere with New Jersey’s program. The letter notes that prosecuting "significant traffickers of illegal drugs, including marijuana, remains a core priority…. [but] it is likely not an efficient use of federal resources to focus enforcement efforts on individuals with cancer or other serious illnesses who use marijuana as part of a recommended treatment…. or their caregivers."
While Christie has asked the Attorney General’s office to review the letter -- an analysis that was pending as of last week -- supporters of the medical marijuana law say this memo may be as closest thing to a federal OK that the state will ever get.
"I don’t think the federal government is going to give anyone blanket immunity," said Rosanne Scotti, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a key advocate for the medical marijuana law. Scotti said that Washington, D.C., has raided unlicensed pot dispensaries in California and other large-scale commercial operators, but those operations are a far cry from the small-scale, nonprofit production and distribution allowed under New Jersey’s law.
"The idea that state workers are going to get arrested is just not realistic," she added.
As for the decriminalization bill, Scotti said it may not provide much benefit to truly sick patients -- many of whom need far more than 15 grams to stave off the effects of their illness. The medical marijuana law allows patients to buy up to 2 ounces at a time.
For Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R-Morris), a co-sponsor on the decriminalization bill, the motivation came primarily from his libertarian beliefs: why spend money punishing people for doing things that only hurt themselves? By criminalizing drugs you create an opportunity for criminal enterprise, he added, an opportunity for "modern day Al Capones."
Given that marijuana is available almost everyone everywhere -- even in safe, suburban Morris Township, Carroll’s home base -- the current laws clearly are not working, said the assemblyman, who also co-sponsored the medical marijuana law. "Plus, to my way of thinking, the penalties [for minor possession] are a little too harsh."
Under current law, possession of more than 50 grams of most drugs – including marijuana – is considered a fourth-degree felony and includes a fine of up to $25,000. Possession of less than 50 grams is a disorderly persons offense, handled by municipal court, and often results in fines of more than $750 and a criminal record, Gusciora said. Those that don't or can't pay can end up with a warrant issued for their arrest, and possibly jail time.
Gusciora said that 80 percent of the drug arrests he saw as a municipal prosecutor involved possession of a small amount of pot, sometimes just a joint or two. The majority of these cases involved teenagers or young adults with no prior record, he said.
The decriminalization bill would not change the penalties for possession of more than 50 grams of marijuana, and those caught with between 15 grams and 50 grams would still be charged as disorderly persons. But people stopped with 15 grams or less would not be charged criminally, instead receiving a paper summons and minor fine. "It’s the equivalent of playing your radio too loud," Gusciora said.
Under the proposal, a first offense would result in a $150 fine; a second stop would cost $200; and a third time would involve a $500 fee. The measure also allows municipal courts to collect and keep the funds, instead of being forced to turn them over to the state, as is now the case with drug fees collected in local courts.
Although the bill, which was introduced during a marathon legislative session in the last week of June, has 17 co-sponsors and prime sponsors from both parties, there is no Senate version yet and sponsors concede it probably won’t become law anytime soon. "It’s a lame duck issue," Gusciora said.