Expungement debate threatens to hold up marijuana legalization

Ask most supporters of marijuana legalization and they’ll tell you that, yes, it’s a new industry that will generate millions of dollars in sales taxes for the state. But, more importantly, according to Gov. Phil Murphy, “First and foremost this is a social justice issue.”

And that means expungement — or setting aside criminal convictions — in this case, for possession of an ounce or less of weed. It sounds good for someone whose life has been turned upside down for getting busted with a small amount of marijuana, but if you were a small-time dealer — whether you sold a dime bag, an eighth or an ounce — expungement does not extend to you. That has several big city mayors and lawmakers balking at backing a legalization bill until there’s some consideration for small-time dealers, who, come some time in the next two years, will still be paying the price for selling a substance that is no longer illegal.

Assemblywoman Angela McKnight represents the southern part of Jersey City, where much of the street dealing occurs.

“I want to make sure that this bill will be fair for all, not just a subset of people,” she said. “We want to make sure that the guy who was selling — and nine time out of 10 he was selling because he was trying to make ends meet, maybe he’s trying to help put food on the table for his kids or help his mom pay rent — now he will still be in jail. Whereas that same corner, someone who wants to smoke marijuana, they can go and buy it legally.”

Sen. Nick Scutari, who’s led the legalization effort for nearly a decade, says expungement for even small-time dealers is not in his bill — and for good reason.

“It’s not that I haven’t heard the argument and I don’t see the argument, but that’s really where the criminal element of marijuana has laid its foundation, is in street dealers,” said Scutari. “I didn’t believe that this piece of legislation, which is essentially moving forward with legalization, can erase all the wrongs that occurred adjacent to prohibition over the past close to 100 years. That’s contemplated in another bill, which is complicated in its own right.”

That bill, sponsored by Sen. Sandra Cunningham, who didn’t want to discuss it with us last week, would extend to distribution of other controlled dangerous substances and other crimes and circumstances. But even that bill lacks enough specificity for mayors like Jersey City’s Steve Fulop, who say small-time dealers would still face penalties.

“Jersey City and Newark is where the majority of the revenue is going to come from for the state,” said Fulop. “If I don’t believe in the bill, I can’t go and try and convince people that are on the fence that this is a good thing. And the only way I would be able to believe in it is that if it corrects issues that have long needed to be corrected, particularly around social justice, and this doesn’t go far enough. And I can’t get there today.”

And that could mean the state’s two largest cities would ban marijuana sales, not only costing the state tax revenue, but providing opportunities for the black markets that legalization is supposed to shut down. It’s no wonder a legalization bill has taken so long to get to this point, and why it’s very likely not going to see a floor vote until early next year.

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