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Cautious NJ Lawmakers Propose Decriminalizing Marijuana in Small Amounts

State senators stop well short of governor’s preference to legalize the drug in New Jersey, voice concerns about social-justice implications

Marijuana

The road to new state marijuana laws is not going to be straightforward, as many previously expected. A bipartisan group of lawmakers announced yesterday that they were advocates for decriminalization — not legalization — but they also left room for putting a referendum before voters.

Sens. Ronald Rice (D-Essex), Robert Singer (R-Ocean), and Joe Cryan (D-Union) announced their support for legislation to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana. If passed, it would throw a monkey wrench in the Gov. Phil Murphy’s oft-repeated plans to legalize cannabis in the state.

Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) has also introduced legislation allowing up to one ounce of recreational possession and proposing a new system to regulate and tax it. Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer) is co-sponsoring an identical bill in the Assembly. Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) has also said that he supports legalization.

“I think this whole legalization thing needs to slow down,” Rice said.

Grams and fines

Ron Rice
Credit: NJTV News screenshot
Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex) discusses proposal to decriminalize marijuana.

The legislation proposed by Rice would decriminalize possession of 10 grams of marijuana or less. Those caught with 10 grams would be charged with a civil penalty — a $100 fine for a first offense, $200 for the second, and $500 for any further offense. The 10-gram threshold is significantly lower than in other states that have decriminalized marijuana in the past, such as Massachusetts, California, Ohio, and Delaware. Those states have started thresholds at 15 grams and have extended them to as much as 100 grams. (A typical joint weighs around one gram; 10 grams can fit in the palm of a hand.)

Under the proposed bill, individuals carrying more than 10 grams and less than 50 grams could receive a $500 fine and six months in prison under a “disorderly persons offense.” Any more than 50 grams could garner a $10,000 fine and be punishable by up to 18 months in prison, the same as under current law. Criminal offense status — and accompanying prison time — would also be removed for those caught with drug paraphernalia, those under the influence, and those operating a moving vehicle while in possession of less than 10 grams.

The issue is a hot button for Rice and many in the African-American community, since blacks are more often arrested and charged with marijuana crimes than are whites. According to the most recent ACLU report, which analyzed marijuana-possession arrest data for every legislative district in the state, black New Jerseyans made up 29 percent of all marijuana possession arrests in the year 2000 despite making up 14 percent of the population. In 2013, that percentage grew to 36 percent, an arrest rate three times that of white New Jerseyans.

Black-white arrest gap

Gov. Murphy and other legislators have acknowledged the need to close the arrest gap but disagree on the best method to do so. Scutari and Murphy have said that full legalization and retroactive action for those currently in prison is the way forward.

“There is widespread agreement that the laws in our state prohibiting marijuana do not work, and there is a will by legislators on both sides of the aisle to enact serious reforms,” Scutari said in a statement. “I welcome a robust dialogue about the severe problems prohibition creates in our communities, but I believe legalization is the most effective way to solve them,” he said.

Some members of the black community, including Rice, take the position that legalization will only serve to further damage minority neighborhoods by allowing young residents to easily access the drug at corner-store dispensaries. Rice made clear that his bill does not reflect the opinion of the Legislative Black Caucus as a whole; that group will hold public hearings to debate the issue during the next few months.

“We have to talk about these things as they relate to our community — black and brown and urban communities in particular,” Rice said. “If it’s about social justice we should be moving this bill. We can debate it, and we can massage it, and we can amend it, but legalization is different than decriminalization.”

Negative effect in minority communities?

Rice was joined at the State House yesterday by Bishop Jethro James, president of the North Jersey Committee of Black Churchmen, who agreed that increasing the visibility of marijuana in the community would have a negative impact.

“I applaud this legislation, this decriminalization, for that is social justice,” James said. He suggested legalization could result in possible employment issues, saying people in minority communities could have a harder time getting a job where drug tests are conducted — in places like NJ Transit, PSE&G, and district schools.

In Newark, Rice said, the city’s reputation could be at stake. Allowing dispensaries and paraphernalia stores into the city could be a deterrent for young families and potential new businesses, he said.

“There’s a renaissance taking place [in Newark],” Rice said. “People who are going to invest in Newark right now recognize the ills of the city but they recognize that we’re trying to combat those ills while it’s growing.”

Lack of scientific data

One challenge facing state legislators and community leaders nationwide as they consider legalizing marijuana is the lack of long-term scientific data. Rice and James brought up fears that “weed poisons children,” citing a controversial case in Colorado where an 11-month-old baby reportedly died from a marijuana overdose. Those claims have been refuted by experts who say that the official cause of death was recorded as myocarditis, a heart-muscle inflammation aggravated by exposure to marijuana use.

Scott Rudder, president of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association and a former state legislator, said that while decriminalization is a strong first step, it’s doesn’t go far enough.

“Decriminalization is a step in the right direction but decriminalization itself might exacerbate a problem that’s already going on,” Rudder said. He added that, by penalizing purchases but not use and possession, decriminalization encourages individuals to seek out black markets which could further harm communities.

“At the end of the day, we’re talking about civil justice,” Rudder said. “We’re also talking about economic opportunities, we’re talking about jobs here.”

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