Decriminalization bill faces tough road, Sen. Rice keeps up the pressure

Despite an assurance from Senate President Steve Sweeney that he will not post a marijuana decriminalization bill, Sen. Ron Rice and members of the Legislative Black Caucus pushed on with the second of three scheduled hearings on the issue. But, testimony from invited guests, including Sens. Nick Scutari and Joe Cryan, demonstrated how heavy a lift moving the bill will be.

“You can talk to people about different issues in New Jersey — pensions, crime and everything else — everybody has an opinion on marijuana,” said Cryan, a former Union County sheriff. “Where I am at today is, I am not in support of the legalization of marijuana.”

Scutari has been the driving force behind the legalization of marijuana in the state. The issue has gone from outlier just a couple of years ago, to front burner, and now, anticipated state budget cash resource.

“I think we can start with a premise that all of us can agree on, I think, and that is that the drug war in the United States of America has been a complete and utter failure,” Scutari testified. “It has failed our citizens, it has crowded our jails, and it’s cost us billions of dollars. It has made profiteers out of drug dealers. It has sent money to our enemies across our southern border and beyond.”

Rice is the Scutari of the decriminalization effort. He says he still expects his bill to be heard. In the meantime, he says the hearings are intended to educate the public, particularly about who benefits from the legalization effort and who doesn’t. Pastor Timothy Jones of Bethany Baptist Church in Newark testified that, illegal or decriminalized, the burden of the law will be borne by communities of color.

“Who do we think will end up with the majority of the tickets for marijuana possession, despite similar use across different ethnicities,” Jones asked rhetorically. “Who do you think would have to end up having to spend more money to try to pay those fines? Who do we think would end up with warrants or arrests as a result of not paying those fines? Decriminalization, in my estimation, will lead to yet another financial reward system for the government based on the backs of those at the bottom of the ladder.”

“We’ve had legal alcohol for 80 years,” added Smart Approaches to Marijuana CEO & President, Kevin Sabet. “Do we have free alcohol treatment on demand? Do we have schools funded the way they should be? Do people in this room actually think that you are going to benefit from another legalized drug?”

As the medical marijuana program expands, and efforts to legalize continue to attract both momentum and big money investors, Rice’s efforts become more and more quixotic. Still, he has one more hearing scheduled for next month, hoping to expand some minds, if not change them outright.