Lawmaker from Newark is at the center of the pushback against legalized pot

He’s the lawmaker who’s getting the credit — or, in some circles, the blame — for derailing the effort to pass a law legalizing recreational use of marijuana, pushing hard instead for decriminalization.

And Sen. Ron Rice is straight up about what he thinks of the two-year effort to add New Jersey to the list of states where weed is legal.

Indeed, the Newark Democrat uses a barnyard epithet to describe the rhetoric of those who pitch legalization as a social justice issue — a step that will address the imbalance in the incarceration of people of color on drug charges. Rather, he says, the proponents’ real game is just opening markets for the multi-million-dollar marijuana industry.

“They were giving the impression that if you legalized recreational marijuana no one would get arrested, and that’s not true,” said Rice, the chair of the Legislative Black Caucus. “In Colorado, they legalized recreational marijuana and black and brown people are still being arrested three times greater than whites. That’s why I kept saying this is not about social justice. It’s about money.”

A renewed attempt to legalize marijuana in New Jersey through legislation died earlier this month as leading Democratic lawmakers said they had again failed to muster enough votes for the bill, and would instead focus on putting the question before voters next November.

This week, Gov. Phil Murphy — who campaigned on legalizing marijuana — announced that he’s now a reluctant supporter of decriminalization. In a statement, he said, in part: “Decriminalization of adult-use marijuana cannot be our long-term solution, but we now must turn to it for critical short-term relief while we await a ballot measure on legalization next November.”

Rice has sponsored multiple bills calling for decriminalization, but the one that’s getting traction right now in the lame-duck session of the Legislature is an Assembly bill, sponsored by Annette Quijano of Elizabeth. Among other changes, it would reduce the penalty for possession of up to 50 grams to a $50 fine, from six months in prison and a $1,000 fine under existing law.

But supporters of legalization say the bill is confusing, and suggest that lawmakers themselves are having difficulty with fundamental questions.

“Should it just be possession, should it also be distribution, what are the amounts, and then, what are the consequences for violating that?” asked Bill Caruso, who’s on the board of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform. “Most people think it should be civil, not criminal, but then varying degrees in terms of fines, non- monetary punishment, and even issues of whether there should be mandatory drug treatment, and a whole host of different concerns that are raised by lawmakers right now.”

Murphy says decriminalization — however defined — still leaves the door open for a robust black market.

Republican Sen. Declan O’Scanlon says the governor’s got a point, but it’s a matter of degrees.

“Breaking the back of the black market needs to be job one. We destroy the cartels, we destroy their profit. If we’re going to go forward with recreational legalization it’s a high priority, so I’m not a fan of giving benefit to the black market,” O’Scanlon said. “But the greater good to society that decriminalization will do far outweighs whatever marginal benefit the black market will get.”

Rice notes that he’s been talking about these issues for years.

“I believe in my heart – and I felt in my heart – that both sides should be debated. And once it’s debated, the public can make a rational decision,” he said.

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