The Senate Judiciary Committee chaired by Nick Scutari (D-Union) held its first of two hearings today on President’s Day regarding the compromise cannabis bill S. 3454.
The bill is called “Addresses underage possession or consumption of various forms of cannabis, including legal consequences for such activities set forth in legislation passed by both Houses of Legislature.”
A series of amendments to make the bill even more progressive will be added at the second hearing tomorrow.
Scutari said there will be a final draft in consultation within the legislature. He said the President’s Day hearing is an ongoing “dialogue that will get a vote tomorrow.”
President’s Day Cannabis Hearing
“The War on Drugs was counter-productive. It didn’t work. We created an underground economy … that produced more deaths, more illicit activity,” said Jiles Ship of the National Organization of Black Law Enforcement (NOBLE) NJ.
He said they should not bring young people into the criminal justice system and resign people into the underground economy.
Ruiz said she wanted to make penalties similar to people scolding individuals they know to put out a cigarette.
There’s a “transformation in policing,” Ship said. “We have to hold supervisors accountable. This is not taught to you in the academy.”
Sarah Fajardo of the ACLU NJ said there are valid concerns about the need to limit law enforcement contact with youth, specifically in the context of cannabis. She said she wants cannabis treated like tobacco, where the onus of penalties is placed on the seller.
Overall, she said the ACLU NJ approved the changes in S. 3454.
Fajardo said the police are expected to respond to far too many issues and other social services needed to address the myriad of issues police find.
“We understand the bill… limits police discretion through defining police interaction with youth,” she said. “We do note the limitations on the police for bringing in for station house adjustment.”
Scutari said, “I don’t think this is the end. I think it’s the beginning,” explaining there will be further cannabis reform bills, though this bill is likely to be signed quickly after its passage in the legislature Thursday.
“During this process in the last three months, there’s been a more concentrated effort with respect to minors more than I had even considered in the last ten years. We were just focused on legalizing for those over 21,” he added.
“I applaud and really thank you for your efforts,” said Laura Cohen of Rutgers Law School. “I represented thousands of kids caught up in the system and seen the life-long harms involved in system involvements.”
Cohen called for them to “reject any quasi-criminal approach when it comes to youth,” urging them to eliminate contact with the court system and no fines.
“The fact that opioids are treated now as a mental health issue while cannabis is being treated as a criminal issue … and weaponizes it through the law enforcement field and clearly impacting mostly black and brown communities,” said Senator Nellie Pou (D-Passaic). “We can no longer start looking at legalizing it and treating it like a criminal offense.”
Scutari noted that such language is under consideration for an amendment up for a vote tomorrow.
Pou noted she wanted it on record that she agreed with Cohen.
“It is time for these bills to pass,” Ruiz noted decriminalization bills should have already passed already, and they could have been ‘further ahead in the discussion.”
Juan Cartagena and Guillermo Mena testified on behalf of Latino Justice and the National Caucus of Latino Legislators.
“We are still dealing with racializing enforcement regimes … that affect Latino people of New Jersey.”
Cartagena said New Jersey could fall into the same trap as Colorado, Oregon, and Washington. Each of those states legalized market the market without reducing youth penalties, which then increased. He said California offers a viable model to emulate.
Guillermo Mena said they need to “end the prison to school pipeline.”
“The legislation that implements the will of the voters … cannot permit municipalities to increase penalties within their border beyond what the legislature is adopting for the entire state,” he added.
Mena said it leaves a loophole to impose towns can impose criminal fines for possession or consumption of canna cannabis.
He explained that they need to “clarify ambiguous definitions of cannabis the in bills. He said Cannabis Indica was initially banned. Mena called prohibition very “anti-Latino” in 37 as the Mexican term for cannabis. He said the enabling bills S. 21 and A. 21 only allow cannabis Sativa technically versus cannabis indica.
Mena urged them to clean-up discrimination against Latinos that stems from referring to legally viable cannabis in English and street cannabis as “marijuana” in Spanish. He said the term was inserted in the plan specifically to discriminate against Mexican people.
“That particularly penalty is $50 is coming out of it the bill,” Pou noted regarding changes that will be made and passed tomorrow.
“(The office of Legislative Services) OLS through our drafter Mr. Lorette is certainly going to be making those changes,” she added. Pou has taken a leading position in cannabis reform.
“S. bill 3454 has a couple of deep pitfalls for New Jersey,” Chris Goldstein of the National Organization to Reform Marijuana Laws (NORML).
“2,000 people were just arrested in January. That’s 80 people a day,” he said. “No more delays at any level.”
Driver’s license provisions may be addressed tomorrow, meaning they would remove the threat of losing a driver’s license when caught in possession of cannabis.
Goldstein said there’s a “clear racial bias into ppl referred into treatment by courts. There’s a racial bias in arrests and outcomes.”
He noted there is now a 15 percent tax for underage deterrence, which was not in the previously seen in cannabis bills.
Pou said that there would be amendments added tomorrow to eliminate that in the clean-up bill, it does not mandate any treatment.
“Referral to treatment for canna is something I want to avoid. I’m glad so many people agree we shouldn’t have fines, courts involved,” Goldstein said.
Ruiz said regarding “this delay ensuring. We passed a very progressive piece of legislation in decriminalization that in the last month could have been prevented all the arrests we’re talking about. Our caucuses have been charged with this very particular subject matter that is near and dear to all of us. It has been an extraordinary feat that we have accomplished… so it doesn’t impact our children.”
She put the onus fully on Murphy for failing to sign the bills.
“The will of the people is that cannabis should be legalized,” Latino Action Network President (on whose board I serve, full disclosure) Christian Estevez said.
Estevez said doesn’t want it to be an “alternative pathway to the court system for young people of color.
He noted the fine for the first offense has gone from $250 to $50 to nothing now once the provision is removed tomorrow.
“We need no more delays. Every day that goes by, more and more people continue to be arrested. We need to start the process of healing,” Estevez said. “We are happy to hear there’s amendments.”
He noted the new amendments Pou and Scutari alluded to would likely pass in committee tomorrow.
Dr. David Nathan of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation came out for homegrow of a “tightly limited number of cannabis plants. I hope the New Jersey legislature supports that effort.”
“The only reason we’re all here today… on President’s day is that the Governor has refused to sign the bills on his desk,” activist and entrepreneur Patrick Duff said, noting Ruiz’s comments.
“Also, regarding a comparison of tobacco to cannabis, tobacco literally kills 485,000 a year, in cannabis … there have been zero deaths!” he exclaimed.
“I just don’t know what we’re here for and… I don’t know if that will satiate the pallet of the great Governor. “Great Governor, please just sign the bills,” Duff said.
Scutari thanked the speakers and senators present and bl and lati caucus working tirelessly working to satisfy, “I’m not saying all parties … but a majority of the people involved. This is not a topic that’s going to be over this week. I’m glad to see we’re seeing this continuing dialogue.”
“The Drug War has been a complete and miserable failure… more particularly those in the black and brown communities,” Scutari said.
He added, “there will be no more public testimony tomorrow.”
Pou thanked everyone for working on President’s Day. She added Senator Ron Rice (D-Essex) might attend the hearing tomorrow.
“We take this very seriously,” said Senator Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson).