MJ Decriminalization

6/15/20 by DAN ULLOA

A bill on MJ decriminalization that lessens penalties for 10 grams or less passed the Assembly Community Development and Affairs Committee’s remote hearing held Monday with three in favor and two abstentions. 

The bill that passed was a merger of two pending cannabis reform bills. A.1897 is called “Decriminalizes possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana and personal-use amount of regulated marijuana-infused products; requires substance abuse treatment under certain circumstances” was sponsored by Assemblymen Benji Wimberly (D-Passaic) and Jamal Holley (D-Union), and Assemblywomen Linda Carter (D-Union) and Cleopatra Tucker (D-Essex). It was merged with A. 4269, sponsored by Annette Quijano (D-Elizabeth), which “Provides for certain criminal and civil justice reforms, particularly with respect to legal consequences associated with certain marijuana and hashish offenses as well as broadening awareness of available expungement relief.”

Ten grams (which equals a third of an ounce) or less along with any paraphernalia would be decriminalized.  Those who are caught with cannabis would receive a $150 fine for a first offense and then $200 for a second offense. Also, those caught would also be subject to a court-ordered assessment to determine if they are addicted If they are not addicted, they would be forced to attend a two-hour educational program on dangerous substances. If found to be drug dependent, they would be forced to attend rehab and be subjected to drug testing.

The corresponding bill of A. 1897 is sponsored in the Senate by Ron Rice (D-Essex), a well-known prohibitionist who stopped the full legalization of cannabis last year.

The Senate MJ decriminalization bill recently introduced was sponsored by Senator Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex), Sandra Cunnigham D-Hudson, and Ron Rice (D-Essex). That bill was far more favorable to those who are caught and did not include a new revenue stream to the rehabilitation industry, which hates legalization.

The committee is chaired by Assemblywoman Shavonda Sumter (D-Passaic) who said the George Floyd BLM protests led to many bills from members of the Assembly to address the ongoing effects of police brutality and the need for reform.  Thus, it seems that perhaps the protests have made some realize that this reform is long overdue in New Jersey. 

MJ Decriminalization Testimony From Leading Figures

Many leading advocates in New Jersey testified on the need for reform.

“There is a discrepancy related to drug crimes. It puts mostly black men behind bars…The numbers are staggering,” Reverend Charles Boyer said. He explained that cannabis-related convictions hurt individuals seeking federal student loans for colleges, housing, and jobs. 

“It gives them a clean slate… “It’s important because so many people in our community can’t move beyond minimum wage jobs,” Boyer added. 

“It’s a move in the right direction,” said Assemblyman Wimberly.

The National Association of Socia Workers (NASW) of NJ Executive Director Jennifer Thompson testified that the NASW NJ supports MJ decriminalization because it would help to dismantle institutional racism. She explained that a marijuana conviction disqualifies an individual from applying for several professional licenses, and the loss of the right to vote. Thompson added insightfully that current policing has done nothing to decrease use.

“We certainly believe decriminalization coupled with the expungement of records will address this,” Thompson said.

“New Jersey is the worst or one of the worst states in racial disparity of how marijuana enforcement is done,” Boyer said.

He expressed curiosity over what the merged bill would look like.

“This is way overdue in New Jersey,” he said said.

Ami Karchalla of the ACLLU and New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform (NJUMR) said, according to a study, a cannabis arrest takes places place in New Jersey every 15 minutes. She noted that COVID-19, along with the BLM protests, shows the need for cannabis reform since prisoners locked up cannot socially distance.

“Garden State NORML is supportive of efforts to remove to penalties for cannabis,” said their Executive Director Charlana McKeithen. “In 2018, over 36,000 New Jersey residents were arrested for possession of marijuana. This would spare everyday citizens from arrests and the hardships that follow.”

McKeithen pointed out she would prefer the language of S. 2535. It offered more protection to those caught by the police by expediting expungements, among other things.

DeVaughn Ward of the Marijuana Policy Project (MPP) testified that even if the referendum to legalize cannabis passes on November 3rd, thousands will be arrest from now until then for cannabis possession. Ward also pointed out that many of the deaths of African Americans at the hands of cops and brutality they faced were later justified by cops when autopsies found cannabis in their systems. He cited Trayon Martin, Michael Brown, and Sandra Bland as examples.

The vote was on party lines with the three Democrats on the committee in favor and the two Republicans abstaining.