Assembly, Senate Bills to Decriminalize Pot Pitched as Part of Social-Justice Reform

Legalization question still on November ballot, but if Murphy signs decriminalization measure possession of 2 ounces of pot could carry $50 fine
Credit: Add Weed via Unsplash
Cannabis on scale

Even before voters get to decide in November whether to legalize recreational marijuana use in New Jersey, possession of small amounts of pot could be decriminalized if Gov. Phil Murphy signs legislation that passed the Assembly on Thursday.

First, though, the Senate would have to approve the Assembly decriminalization bill, or a Senate measure that would be even more lenient on the possession of up to a pound of cannabis. Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) has yet to decide whether to post a decriminalization bill and wants to be sure its passage won’t hurt the chances of the legalization ballot question.

The marijuana bill was one of eight approved Thursday that supporters called a package of social-justice reforms. All of the bills cleared the Assembly after moving quickly through committee Monday in response to the recent killings of a number of African Americans and nationwide protests that have followed. Most of the other bills deal with police-related reforms, including the classification of chokeholds as use of force that would only be justified in limited circumstances.

Making possession of less than two ounces of marijuana a civil penalty with a $50 fine is only part of A-1897/A-4269, which passed the Assembly 63-10 with 13 Republicans joining all Democrats present in voting “yes.” The measure would also reduce penalties for possessing up to five pounds of marijuana or hashish; expand expungement for prior offenses; prevent discrimination by employers, banks or landlords based on these drug crimes and make information about marijuana and hashish offenses confidential.

Reducing trauma for future generations

“This is only one piece of the many parts of change that must be done in the name of social justice for our communities,” said Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D-Passaic), one of the bill’s sponsors. “The War on Drugs in many ways became a war on particular communities, incarcerating millions of people and affecting families irreparably for decades. The action we take now to help our black and brown communities who have been disproportionately affected by current laws surrounding cannabis use is critical to trauma for future generations.”

On Monday, during a hearing by the Assembly Community Development and Affairs Committee on all the bills, several speakers cited various statistics showing the large number of marijuana arrests. Charlana McKeithen, executive director of Garden State NORML, said 36,000 people were arrested for marijuana possession in 2018, with African Americans arrested at rates more than three times higher than whites.

According to NORML, 24 states and the District of Columbia have already enacted some form of decriminalization, with Virginia slated to become the 25th on July 1. These include New York, Delaware and Maryland.

Under current law, the distribution of less than one ounce of marijuana in New Jersey or less than five grams of hashish is a crime of the fourth degree that can be punishable by a term of imprisonment of up to 18 months, a fine of up to $10,000, or both. The bill would make possession or distribution of less than two ounces of marijuana a civil matter carrying a $50 fine.

It’s unclear whether Murphy would sign this specific bill, but he did say last November he supported the concept and wanted to see the Legislature pass “sensible decriminalization legislation as soon as possible.”

Legalization ballot question

Eleven states and the District of Columbia have legalized recreational marijuana. The New Jersey Legislature could not muster enough votes in the last legislative session to legalize pot but did pass in December a measure placing the legalization question before voters in November.  If approved, the use of recreational marijuana would become legal in New Jersey on Jan. 1.

An April poll by the Monmouth University Polling Institute said 61% of participants would vote for the legalization question.

DeVaughn Ward, senior legislative counsel with the Marijuana Policy Project, said that’s no reason for lawmakers to hold off passing a decriminalization bill now. The bill would take effect 90 days after its enactment.

“Police make a marijuana possession arrest in New Jersey every 22 minutes,” he said. “This means that unless the Legislature enacts decriminalization between now and Election Day, thousands of New Jerseyans will have their lives turned upside down by cannabis possession arrests …This bill is of urgent importance because we’ve seen the cannabis justification used repeatedly in civil rights tragedies throughout the nation.”

Pundits differ on whether voters will back the legalization question in November, given the uncertainties of the status of COVID-19 and whether the election will be conducted entirely by mail-in ballot. The ballot question would amend the state Constitution to allow the growing, packaging, retail purchasing and consumption of cannabis by those age 21 or older. It would also create mechanisms for the oversight and taxing of legal cannabis.

“The fact that you saw some bipartisan support for decriminalization further indicates that, at least according to the polls, it’s a popular issue,” said Ben Dworkin, founding director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship. “That’s why it’s widely assumed it will pass in November.”

Matt Hale, a political science professor at Seton Hall University, is not so sure.

Not a ‘slam dunk’

“Legalization has never been a slam dunk,” he said. “There is some significant opposition in the black community and in some suburbs. Marijuana legalization might feel kind of a second tier issue with all the crazy and scary things going on in the world right now. People might not want to add more uncertainty into the mix right now … Even so, polls consistently show that New Jersey residents support both decriminalization and legalization.”

A spokesman for Sweeney said the Senate president supports both the decriminalization and legalization, but wants to discuss with members of the Democratic caucus the best way to proceed.

“Senator Sweeney’s primary motivation is the social-justice reforms this will produce,” said Richard McGrath, Sweeney’s spokesman. “He wants to work in collaboration with his colleagues in the Senate Democratic caucus to balance out the best timing to act. It’s a strategic decision to make sure the policy goal is achieved.”

Three Senate Democrats introduced their own decriminalization bill earlier this month. S-2535 goes even further than the measure the Assembly passed Thursday. For instance, it would decriminalize the possession or distribution of up to a pound of marijuana, with a written warning for the first offense and either a $25 fine or community service for subsequent offenses.

“Whether or not voters decide to legalize marijuana in November, this should not change our stance on moving forward with the decriminalization of marijuana,” said Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex), one of the sponsors, on the bill’s introduction. “We cannot wait until the fall while countless members of the black and brown communities are targeted for marijuana-related offenses. If this state really wants to push social-justice reform without an economic reward, this is how you achieve that goal.”

That bill, which includes other reforms related to marijuana possession that are similar to those in the Assembly measure, was referred to the Senate Judiciary Committee.

Seven other social justice measures passed the Assembly Thursday, all with little or no opposition. They are:

  • A-744, which would require law enforcement agencies to disclose the entire internal affairs and personnel files of law enforcement officers who are prospective candidates for employment with another agency, codifying a change Attorney General Gurbir Grewal directed last year.
  • A-1076, which would require Grewal to create a program to collect, record and analyze data on adult defendants, from the time a defendant is arrested or charged through the final disposition of a case, including race, ethnicity, gender and age, as well as such details as dismissed or downgraded charges, plea agreements and court fees and fines.
  • A-1906, which would make it a third degree crime to call police or file a police report under false pretenses to intimidate a person based on race or other characteristics protected by the state’s bias crimes law.
  • A-2394, which would require all law enforcement agencies in the state to establish minority recruitment and selection programs.
  • A-3641, which would mandate all state, county, municipal and campus law enforcement agencies provide implicit cultural diversity and implicit bias training.
  • A-4263, which would classify the use of chokeholds or actions with a similar result as deadly force that would be justified only if necessary to protect the officer or another person from death or serious bodily injury, to arrest or prevent the escape of a violent criminal, or to prevent the commission of a violent crime.
  • A-4275, which would expand the sources for juror lists to include those who receive several forms of state assistance or hold a non-driver identification card issued by the state Motor Vehicle Commission to create a more diverse pool of candidates.