Two New Jersey legislators opposed to legalizing recreational marijuana introduced a bipartisan bill on Thursday that would decriminalize the possession of small amounts of cannabis and address concerns about racially discriminatory arrests.
The measure, proposed by State Sen. Ronald Rice, a Democrat who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, and State Sen. Robert Singer, a Republican from Ocean County, would reduce the penalty for possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana to a $100 civil fine for the first violation, $200 for the second, and $500 for subsequent offenses.
"There are more blacks in jail than any other ethnic group for the personal use of marijuana, and that's a social justice issue," said Rice, who represents Newark and the surrounding area. He said the measure would allow the inmates to petition the court to be released and have their criminal records expunged. Those arrested for simple possession would no longer face up to six months in jail and would not face the threat of having a criminal record.
But the bill could divert attention from Gov. Murphy's campaign promise to legalize pot at a time when public opinion polls show popular support in the state for legalization has dipped.
Dan Bryan, a spokesman for the Democratic governor, declined comment on the bill. But in the past, Murphy has said decriminalization doesn't go far enough and doesn't eliminate a black market that profits from illegal marijuana sales.
Chris Goldstein, a longtime cannabis activist from Willingboro who lobbied Philadelphia officials to pass a decriminalization bill in 2014, says the New Jersey bill could stop an estimated 26,000 people from being arrested each year for marijuana crimes. In Philadelphia, possession of less than 30 grams of pot (about an ounce) carries a fine of $25.
Goldstein, who has worked with the advocacy group NORML and who writes the Philly420 column for Philly.com, said he has encountered legalization advocates who don't support decriminalization. "If the arrests [for marijuana] are still happening, it keeps the pressure on for full legalization," he said.
Like Murphy, Sen. Nicholas Scutari, who chairs the Judiciary Committee, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney both prefer full legalization.
In a statement, Scutari said: "I welcome a robust dialogue about the severe problems prohibition creates in our communities, but I believe legalization is the most effective way to solve them. I look forward to the continued discussion about addressing what everyone acknowledges is a failed system and needs to change."
In the past, Sweeney and Scutari, both Democrats, have said that legalization would make millions for the state, by taxing a regulated cannabis industry. They both would be able to block a decriminalization bill from coming to the floor for a vote.
Rice said Sweeney has encouraged him to hold hearings on his bill but did not make any promises on its fate.
"He [Sweeney] did say that we we need more information," Rice said. "I would expect he would give me respect and post the bill if he posts the other bill for legalization."
Sweeney could not be reached for comment.
Singer said decriminalization provides a solution to the problems created by marijuana arrests and incarcerations.
"We can't just ignore the fairness issue," Singer said. "And the marijuana arrests are clogging our jails and taking time from law enforcement."