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Black Caucus Sees Murphy as Ally but Says ‘Not So Fast’ to Legalizing Marijuana

African-American legislators concerned that legalization could increase drug use and promote conflicts between police officers and minorities

sen. ron rice
Credit: NewsWorks.org
Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex), chairman of the state Legislature's black caucus

With Phil Murphy taking office today, members of the legislative black caucus are confident they have an ally in the governor’s office — as opposed to the previous administration. But they say they are in not complete lockstep with the new governor, and want him to carefully consider some of his policy initiatives.

Murphy campaigned on issues like increasing the minimum wage and addressing employment gaps and he is also a former national NAACP board member who picked someone directly from the black caucus, former state Assemblywoman Sheila Oliver, to serve as his lieutenant governor.

The Murphy-Oliver ticket also prevailed in November with more than 90 percent of the state’s African-American vote, said Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Essex), the chair of the black caucus.

“We think we have a vested interest in him succeeding,” Rice said in an interview with NJ Spotlight.

But even as the group’s members are anxious to work with Murphy’s incoming administration on shared priorities, they also have some concerns they want to address. At the top of the list is Murphy’s proposal to legalize marijuana in New Jersey, Rice said.

Impact on communities of color

Murphy has portrayed the legalization issue as primarily one of social justice since blacks are more likely to be arrested for possessing marijuana than whites in New Jersey, and some of the groundwork in the Democratic-controlled Legislature has already been laid for legalizing marijuana, meaning the change could come quickly. But the black caucus is planning to hold a series of hearings to ensure the issue will get close scrutiny, including the potential impact such a policy change could have on communities of color in New Jersey.

For example, the proposed hearings will look at how legalization could lead to increased rates of drug use and bring on new conflicts between police officers and minorities, Rice said. Cities, like Newark, which is home to several colleges, could choose not to allow marijuana sales within their borders, he said. But that could lead residents of those places to buy marijuana in nearby suburbs where such sales may be welcomed, he said.

There will be hearings in South, central, and north Jersey to flesh out those and other concerns, Rice said. “Whether people are for it or against it, these issues should be made transparent,” he said.

While Murphy and Oliver, both Democrats, will be sworn into office today during a ceremony in Trenton, the Legislature reorganized last week for the start of the latest two-year session. So, too, did the legislative black caucus, which chose to retain Rice as chair, with Assemblyman Jerry Green (D-Union) and Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic) as vice chairs. With 17 members in all, the caucus makes up nearly 15 percent of the 120-seat Legislature.

Other priorities

Among the key priorities the group has identified for the new legislative session are improving voting rights and social justice; boosting equal-employment opportunities and education funding, and enacting new criminal-justice reforms. Those are issues that generally mesh well with the social-justice agenda that Murphy laid out during his successful campaign last year against Republican Kim Guadagno, Gov. Chris Christie’s longtime lieutenant governor.

“I feel confident in him, and I’m going to do all I can to work with him and protect the things he’s doing that are right,” Rice said.

There’s already a sense of goodwill being built up as Murphy has been assembling a diverse cabinet that includes several African-Americans selected for key positions, including the secretary of state and commissioner of the Department of Education. Oliver, a longtime Democratic lawmaker from Essex County, will also become the state’s first-ever African-American lieutenant governor when she is sworn in today.

“We feel confident that the relationship with the new administration is going to be different than with the Christie Administration, and that we will be able to accomplish things that we’ve been unable to for the last eight years,” Rice said. “We are eager to begin our work.”

Yet even with that sense of enthusiasm, there’s also building concern about Murphy’s proposal to legalize marijuana, which is also backed by key leaders in the Legislature, including Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester).

Murphy: It’s a matter of social justice

Right now, New Jersey law only allows for marijuana to be used for medicinal purposes, and only to treat a restricted set of ailments. But Murphy repeatedly called for legalizing recreational marijuana use during the campaign last year, and he never backed off that position during the transition, even as some lawmakers began to raise concerns about issues like the increased potential for impaired driving.

While making the case for legalization, Murphy has pointed to statistics that indicate blacks are more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession in New Jersey than whites even though whites generally report using marijuana at a higher rate than African-Americans. He’s also estimated that as much as $300 million could eventually be raised for the cash-strapped state budget through proposed taxes on marijuana sales.

“First and foremost, this is a social-justice issue,” Murphy said after recent a transition event in Trenton. “We have the widest white, non-white gap of persons incarcerated in America. It’s not the only reason, but a big reason is low-end drug crimes, and we have to face up to that.”

Murphy said simply decriminalizing marijuana possession to address the social-justice concerns would still leave the selling of marijuana in New Jersey up to “the bad guys.” He also said that his administration will be able to study the experiences in other states like Colorado, Nevada, and Oregon where recreational marijuana use has already been legalized to determine what has worked and what hasn’t.

“What the new governor should be doing is slowing down and taking an in-depth look,” Rice said.

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