Murphy makes final push for marijuana legalization as crucial vote nears

Backed by a star lineup of social justice advocates, Gov. Phil Murphy seized the bully pulpit to argue that legalizing recreational marijuana is nothing less than a civil rights issue. The event seemed to target holdouts among black caucus members in the Legislature who say it doesn’t do enough to repair the ravages of the war on drugs.

“New Jersey has the opportunity to literally set captives free from prison, probation, parole, and a life stigmatized and shackled by a criminal record,” said Rev. Charles Boyer, the pastor at Bethel AME Woodbury.

One by one, speakers stepped up to the microphone to argue the bill — set for a showdown vote on Monday — isn’t perfect, but will stop the plague of marijuana arrests among people of color.

“One of the talking points has been that marijuana is a gateway drug, a gateway drug. And we agree. It’s a gateway to county jail or state prison if you are black or brown,” said the President of the NJ NAACP, Richard Smith. “New Jersey makes more than 32,000 marijuana arrests per year, and black New Jerseyans are nearly three times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession. These numbers alone make legalization a civil rights issue.”

“As an attorney that specializes in labor and employment, I can’t tell you how often this issue comes across my desk. And it’s unfortunate because it truly is such a disproportionate rate of black and brown that are affected. That needs to be addressed, and this legislation does that. So hopefully on Monday this does get passed because the longer it stays not passed, the longer we go away in handcuffs and it’s just not fair,” said Arlene Quinones Perez, a past president of the Hispanic Bar Association of New Jersey.

The marijuana legalization bill creates a five-member commission, and one must be a social justice advocate. Licenses will be awarded based on points with priority given to impact zones, or cities of 120,000 or more with a history of marijuana-related crime and poverty. Thirty percent of licenses will be reserved for minorities, women and disabled veterans, and 10 percent for microbusinesses to ensure retailers aren’t swamped by corporate interests. Expungement will address offenses involving 5 or less pounds of marijuana, and will dismiss pending charges and cases and expedite expungement for older ones, with the court responsible for gathering relevant documents at no charge.

“Although this bill still lacks robust and overt community reinvestment, it is another major step in dismantling and abolishing the war on black and brown people. Thousands will reap the benefit of vacated or reduced sentences and expunged records. By any sober assessment, all pun intended, this is real liberation and this is real transformation,” Boyer said.

This late push from the governor comes as vote whipping has left the measure shy of support it needs to pass.

“I’m an optimist by nature. We are not there yet, though. Let me say this, we are not there yet. We have to move a number of chess pieces still in both the Assembly and the Senate and it’s going to take all of us collectively to do that,” said Gov. Phil Murphy.

Sources say Monday’s vote will be very close. If the bill fails, chances are it’ll gather dust until after the next election

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