decriminalization, NJ

The NJ Senate Appropriations Committee passed the decriminalization bill while the implementation bill was pulled from the schedule.

The decriminalization bill, S. 3525, passed with bipartisan support and the abstention of State Senator Sam Thompson (R-Middlesex).

“I’m really proud this bill is unique and of its kind. New Jersey will be at the forefront of the decriminalization conversation,” said State Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex).

She noted she grew up as a Puerto Rican in Newark and saw the damage the War on Drugs has done.

“This is just a first step,” Ruiz said regarding the need to repair the damage.

“Justice for cannabis doesn’t start until arrests, discrimination, and harassment stop,” National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws (NORML) Organizer Chris Goldstein said. “The decrim bill will actually delivery some of the justice they’ve been talking about.”

The constitutional amendment only allows for the possession of cannabis from a legal dispensary versus underground cannabis. Thus, a decriminalization bill also had to be passed.

“We need actual legislation to stop arrests, and this does more than that,” Goldstein said.

S. 2535 not only decriminalizes possession of six ounces of cannabis, it also reduces the severity of consequences for distribution significantly.

“It’s great news for consumers,” Goldstein said.

It’s also notable that the bill knocked down possession of magic mushrooms or psilocybin from a felony to a disorderly person offense.

“We do legacy work here,” Ruiz said.

Goldstein explained that decriminalization bills passed elsewhere almost exclusively cover possession.

While the bill, sponsored by State Senators Ruiz, Ron Rice (D-Essex), Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson), Nick Scutari (D-Union), Vin Gopal (D-Monmouth), and Shirley Turner (D-Mercer), initially decriminalized a pound of cannabis, the bill that passed only decriminalized six ounces.

“Let’s hope it doesn’t get whittled down more,” Goldstein said.

For the bill to pass the legislature without going through the Assembly Budget and Appropriations Committee again, Goldstein explained that S. 2535 was combined with the Assembly bill passed in June by inserting the bill’s language. The combined bill now needs to pass the Assembly again along with the State Senate. He noted that a similar move was done to pass the Jake Honig Act last year.

Implementing Bill Issues while Decriminalization Passes

The other big news out of Trenton was that the implementation bills were pulled from the Appropriations Committees.

One of the biggest problems with S. 21 is that the term “socially and economically disadvantaged communities” is not defined, which has led many advocates to worry it will be used as a loophole. NJ Weedman and other cannabis supporters thought this would happen, which is why he urged people to vote against the referendum. Many thought the language of the bill that died, S. 2703, was stronger.

Thus, the bill has not addressed long-standing fears it will only benefit large, out-of-state corporations run by white men.

The other problem is the lack of a dedicated funding stream to neighborhoods most harmed by the War on Drugs. The tax on cannabis in the proposed bill is not high enough to support that and giving money to the police, which the bill does. But prominent advocates believe the tax is too low and should be raised to include such a funding stream. Ruiz said the implementation bill must have money going back to the communities most harmed.

To avoid the problem California has where the legal cannabis is so expensive most are still relying on underground dealers, the lawmakers want the price of New Jersey cannabis to be kept low to undercut the underground market. Ruiz and Goldstein separately said that they would like the underground entrepreneurs to sell legitimately in New Jersey’s legal cannabis market.  

He said the bill S. 21 was like a bad opera where people started throwing tomatoes. Thus, it’s no wonder it was pulled at the last minute.

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