11/27/19 By DAN ULLOA

Governor Phil Murphy recently announced that he was considering advocating that the legislature pass a decriminalization bill in addition to the proposed referendum on adult-use cannabis.

“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,” Murphy announced. “Maintaining a status quo that sees roughly 600 individuals, disproportionately people of color, arrested in New Jersey every week for low-level drug offenses is wholly unacceptable.”

This comes right after the announcement that legalization through the legislature was pronounced dead in the Lame Duck session. Many were hoping that it could be passed then. The ACLU had only just released numbers saying 94 people a day are being arrested for possession. And with two months to get the votes, the passage seemed sufficiently feasible to try. For those who seek criminal justice reform with the questions of the industry lingering over it, this is a welcome measure.

“We certainly welcome any action to stop marijuana consumers from being arrested. Decrim with civil fines has always preceded full legalization…consumers deserve justice before taxes and profits. Someone is arrested for marijuana possession now every 22 minutes in New Jersey that is completely unacceptable and needs to stop now,” said Garden State NORML Executive Director Charlana McKeithen.

Ken Wolski, Executive Director of the Coalition for Medical Marijuana of New Jersey (CMMNJ) agreed, saying, “I agree that decriminalization of marijuana and home cultivation for patients can and should be instituted immediately in NJ.

However, Wolski was not fully content with the notion.

“Decriminalization is still prohibition of cannabis. Residents caught with marijuana are still punished. Decriminalization leaves the sale of cannabis in the same criminal underground markets that sell truly dangerous drugs,” he explained.

“With no legal recourse to resolve disputes, as was the case with alcohol prohibition, cannabis prohibition significantly increases crime. With decriminalization and its underground market, there will remain little quality control. There is no content labeling. There are no warnings for inappropriate use. There are contaminants, anything from molds and pesticides to other drugs, in cannabis from the illegal market. Decriminalization does nothing to prevent regular sales to minors. Indeed, minors are often encouraged to become involved in the illegal cannabis market,” Wolski said in a statement. 

Decriminalization Winners

Many figures such as Senators Ron Rice (D-Essex), Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), and former Senate President Dick Codey (D-Essex) will likely be pleased. They have been advocated throughout the fight for legalization on the merits of decriminalization instead of full adult-use. Their votes were needed to pass adult-use and they were not forthcoming with it. 

Other groups advocating for decriminalization as a stop measure will be pleased as well. This includes those fighting for treatment centers, and a number of pastors. Former Congressman Patrick Kennedy (D-Mass) moved to South Jersey after retiring from there and has been vocal in support of mental health reform. He came to the movement after getting clean after his very public drunken episodes while in Congress. Kennedy has previously spoken at the NJ Democratic conference on the need for increased funding for mental health. He was staunchly against full legalization and believed in decriminalization.

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