Assembly and Senate bills to decriminalize the pot as part of social justice reform

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Large-scale cannabis

Even before voters decide in November whether or not to legalize recreational marijuana use in New Jersey, possession of small amounts of weed could be decriminalized if Gov. Phil Murphy signs a law that was passed by Assembly Thursday.

First, however, the Senate would have to approve the Assembly’s decriminalization bill, or a Senate measure that would be even more lenient on possession of up to a pound of cannabis. Senate Speaker Steve Sweeney (D-Gloucester) has yet to decide to release a decriminalization bill and wants to ensure that its passage will not hurt the chances of the legalization ballot question.

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

Making possession of less than two ounces of marijuana a civil sanction with a fine of $ 50 is only part of A-1897/ A-4269, which passed Assembly 63-10 with 13 Republicans joining all Democrats in attendance to vote “yes”. The measure would also reduce penalties for possession of up to five pounds of marijuana or hashish; extend the striking off for previous offenses; prevent discrimination by employers, banks or landlords on the basis of these drug crimes and keep information on marijuana and hashish offenses confidential.

Reduce trauma for future generations

“This is just one of the many changes that need to be made in the name of social justice for our communities,” said MP Benjie Wimberly (D-Passaic), one of the bill’s sponsors. “The war on drugs has in many ways become a war against particular communities, incarcerating millions of people and irreparably affecting families for decades. The steps we take now to help our black and brown communities that have been disproportionately affected by current laws regarding cannabis use are central to the trauma of future generations. “

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

According to NORML, 24 states and the District of Columbia have already adopted some form of decriminalization, Virginia to become July 25. These include New York, Delaware, and Maryland.

Under current law, distributing less than an ounce of marijuana in New Jersey or less than five grams of hashish is a fourth degree felony which can be punishable by imprisonment for up to at 18 months, to 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 punishable by a fine of $ 50.

It’s unclear if Murphy would sign this specific bill, but he said Last November, he supported the concept and wanted the Legislature to pass “sensible decriminalization legislation as soon as possible.”

Question in the legalization ballot

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 the pot, but in December passed a measure pose the question of legalization to voters in November. If approved, the recreational use of marijuana would become legal in New Jersey on January 1.

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

DeVaughn Ward, senior legislative adviser for the Marijuana Policy Project, said this was no reason for lawmakers to delay passage of a decriminalization bill now. The bill would come into force 90 days after promulgation.

“Police make an arrest for possession of marijuana in New Jersey every 22 minutes,” he said. “This means that unless the legislature enacts decriminalization by Election Day, thousands of New Jerseyans will have their lives turned upside down by arrests for possession of cannabis … This bill is of urgent importance because we have seen the justification for cannabis used repeatedly in civil rights tragedies across the country.

Experts differ on whether voters will support the legalization issue in November, given uncertainties over COVID-19 status and whether the election will be conducted entirely by mail ballot. The ballot issue would amend the state’s constitution to allow the cultivation, packaging, retail purchase and consumption of cannabis by those 21 years of age or older. It would also create mechanisms to monitor and tax legal cannabis.

“The fact that you’ve seen bipartisan support for decriminalization further indicates that, at least according to the polls, it’s a popular question,” said Ben Dworkin, founding director of the Rowan Institute for Public Policy and Citizenship. “That’s why it’s widely assumed he’ll drop by in November.”

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

Not a “slam dunk”

“Legalization has never been a slam dunk,” he said. “There is significant opposition in the black community and in some suburbs. Marijuana legalization can seem like a second level problem with all the crazy and scary things going on in the world right now. People may not want to add more uncertainty to the mix just yet … Even so, polls consistently show New Jersey residents support both decriminalization and legalization.

A spokesperson for Sweeney said the Senate Speaker supported both decriminalization and legalization, but wanted to discuss with members of the Democratic caucus how best to proceed.

“Senator Sweeney’s main motivation is the social justice reforms this will bring about,” said Richard McGrath, spokesperson for Sweeney. “He wants to work with his colleagues in the Senate Democratic caucus to find the best time to act. It is a strategic decision to ensure that the political objective is achieved.

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

“Whether or not voters decide to legalize marijuana in November, it shouldn’t change our stance on decriminalizing marijuana,” Senator Ron Rice (D-Essex), one of the sponsors, said at the introduction of the bill. “We cannot wait until fall when countless members of the black and brown communities are the targets of marijuana-related offenses. If this state is serious about pushing social justice reform without economic reward, this is how you get there. “

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

Seven more social justice measures were passed by the assembly on Thursday, all with little to no opposition. They are:

  • A-744, which would require law enforcement agencies to fully disclose the internal affairs and personal files of law enforcement officers who are potential candidates for employment in another agency, codifying a change ordered by Attorney General Gurbir Grewal last year.
  • A-1076, which would require Grewal to create a program to collect, record and analyze data on adult defendants, from the time an defendant is arrested or charged until the final disposition of a case, including race, l ethnicity, gender and age, as well as details such as charges dismissed or downgraded, plea agreements, and court costs and fines.
  • A-1906, which would make it a third degree felony to call the police or file a police report under false pretenses to intimidate someone because of their race or other characteristics protected by state law. the offenses of partiality.
  • A-2394, which would require all state law enforcement agencies to establish minority recruitment and selection programs.
  • A-3641, which would require all state, county, municipal and campus law enforcement agencies to provide training on implicit cultural diversity and implicit biases.
  • A-4263, which would classify the use of strangles or actions having a similar result as lethal force which would be justified only if necessary to protect the officer or another person from death or serious injury, to stop or prevent the escape of a violent criminal, or to prevent the commission of a violent crime.
  • A-4275, which would expand the sources of jury rolls to include those who receive multiple forms of state aid or hold a non-driver identity card issued by the state Motor Vehicle Commission to create a more diverse pool of candidates.
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