Will NJ decriminalize marijuana ahead of legal weed vote? New bill has $25 fine for pot
Even though a vote to legalize weed in New Jersey is still months away, the Legislature is considering a bill to decriminalize marijuana that would make a pot bust cheaper than a traffic ticket.
The decriminalization bill, introduced by state Sens. Teresa Ruiz, Sandra Cunningham and Ronald Rice, represents a move clamored for by activists, who say the state needs to decriminalize the drug while it awaits the results of a marijuana legalization ballot question in November.
"While we await voter approval of legalization, we cannot forget about those arrested and incarcerated every day on marijuana-related charges,” said Ruiz, D-Essex, in a statement. "By decriminalizing certain marijuana offenses, we can prevent countless unnecessary arrests and the attendant legal consequences over the next seven months.”
Marijuana legalization advocates have been clamoring for decriminalization for over a year, since the push to legalize weed through the legislative process fell apart.
The Rev. Charles Boyer, director of faith-based justice reform group Salvation and Social Justice, said it was vital that decriminalization occur before marijuana is legalized.
"It's critically important that, if legalization is going to take place, that it not be done in an inequitable manner, so that we'd have a bunch of young white men becoming billionaires after we've had decades and decades of Black men and women becoming prisoners and being pushed into poverty over the same exact thing," Boyer said. "That would be the epitome of structural racism, the epitome of white privilege."
The marijuana decriminalization bill could be landmark legislation, upending not just drug laws but justice and law enforcement regulations, as well.
Here's what you need to know:
What would this bill do?
If signed into law, marijuana would be decriminalized. Decriminalization is a halfway point to marijuana legalization, usually used as a compromise in states where legal weed doesn't have enough support or, like New Jersey, could be coming soon.
It doesn't quite legalize weed (more on that later). But it specifically states that you can't be arrested for being under the influence of marijuana, unless you're using it in a potentially dangerous scenario, such as driving a car. You can still be arrested for a DUI or DWI.
Police would be barred from arresting a marijuana suspect unless there's another violation of the law. And officers would be barred from searching your person or vehicle based on the smell of marijuana.
So if I got caught with marijuana, what would happen to me?
If you have under 1 pound of marijuana on your person, you'd get a written warning on your first offense. All other offenses would come with a $25 civil penalty. If the penalty is not paid, the subject can perform community service.
Possession of between 1 and 5 pounds of marijuana would be a disorderly persons offense, which comes with a maximum six-month jail sentence and $1,000 fine.
The $25 civil penalty will be paid to and collected by the state. The goal was to keep the process away from municipalities, which could issue warrants and apply hundreds of dollars in court costs to marijuana users.
"They don't have any level of a financial incentive to enforce this structure," Boyer said.
How is that different?
Under current law, the most common bar used in New Jersey marijuana arrests is under 50 grams.
If you're convicted of possession of under 50 grams, it's a disorderly persons offense (see above). If you're convicted of having over 50 grams, it's a fourth-degree crime, which comes with a maximum sentence of 18 months in state prison and a $10,000 fine.
Possession of between 1 ounce and 5 pounds of marijuana is a third-degree crime, which has a maximum sentence of three to five years in prison and a $25,000 fine.
What's the difference between marijuana legalization and decriminalization?
When states legalize marijuana, it becomes a product governed like a mix between alcohol and cigarettes. Under the models New Jersey lawmakers have explored and proposed, weed would only be sold at licensed dispensaries and to those older than 21.
Decriminalizing marijuana essentially means that marijuana is no longer a crime. Marijuana would still technically be illegal, but the punishments would be downgraded.
Instead of treating marijuana like heroin, it's treated like a speeding ticket.
Why is decriminalization so important right now?
It's been over six months since legislative leaders announced that they were all-in on a ballot question. And there's another five months until that ballot question is voted on.
During that time, New Jersey law enforcement officers have arrested people for marijuana possession at an estimated rate of 95 arrests per day, or one arrest every 14 minutes, according to an analysis of federal crime data by the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.
Boyer said the legislature should consider the bill now, during a time when racism and police violence are at the forefronts of Americans' minds in New Jersey and elsewhere.
While George Floyd's death at the hands of Minneapolis police officers didn't come during a marijuana search, activists have said the decades-long war on drugs instituted "broken windows" policies, in which police departments assigned officers to predominantly Black neighborhoods to focus on minor crimes, such as marijuana possession.
And too many of those interactions result in loss of life for Black people, Boyer said.
"A lot of the contact between Black people and law enforcement is around minor offenses, whether that be marijuana or a $20 bill or a ticket," Boyer said. "Something very minor can wind up costing a Black person their life."
What else does the decriminalization bill do?
If signed into law, the bill would automatically expunge arrests, charges, convictions or any court record of marijuana charges involving less than five pounds of the drug.
Last year, Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law a bill that overhauled the state's burdensome expungement system. That law also allowed those convicted of possession of up to 5 pounds of marijuana to get those charges expunged.
But this bill would institute automatic expungement. It's been a major sticking point for activists in previous marijuana bills. Automatic expungements place the burden on government agencies — such as court offices and police departments — to wipe offenders' records cleans.
Without it, offenders would be required to petition the court, a lengthy and complicated process that activists say scares off those with a valid expungement claim.
“No person should be penalized for a substance for a charge that’s now decriminalized,” said Kachalia, from the ACLU. “That’s something we’ve been saying for a long time. Whatever we do needs to simplify the expungement process so people have meaningful access to it.”
If the new bill is signed into law, courts would dismiss all existing cases involving less than five pounds of marijuana. Smoking weed also wouldn't count as a violation of parole or probation, and judges wouldn't be allowed to prohibit marijuana use as a condition of supervised release.
"If on Monday I have things on my record that, on Tuesday, other people are walking around and doing legally? That's definitely not justice," Boyer said. "The fact that the state is moving towards trying to legalize marijuana is admission that we've done something wrong for a very long time.
"And if you don't immediately look to rectify what you've done wrong, all you're doing is treating people you've done wrong even worse."
Haven't they tried to decriminalize marijuana before?
Last year, Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, D-Union, introduced a decriminalization bill that set the "legal" limit at 2 ounces. Her bill was approved by the Assembly Appropriations Committee, but was never considered in the Senate.
And before signing onto this bill, Rice himself introduced a decriminalization bill that was largely panned by activists. It would have required sending marijuana users to drug treatment facilities as a condition of having charges dropped against them.
Is this bill going to pass?
The fate of this bill is still very unclear.
Outside of the bill sponsors, no other legislator has come out in favor of it and the bill is yet to be introduced in the Assembly. Usually, bills — especially when it comes to marijuana legalization — require momentum and a legislative bigwig to champion them to passage.
For example, it took legislators less than three weeks last year to introduce, amend, clear by committee and pass the bill that placed marijuana legalization on the ballot. It doesn't seem like this bill has that kind of momentum just yet.
Both Murphy and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, were staunchly against decriminalization while the marijuana legalization bill was still under consideration. The governor has since said that decriminalization would be "critical short-term relief" until the ballot measure passes.
In an email, a spokesman for Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said he wasn't opposed to the decriminalization bill but was unsure of the "best timing to act."
"(Sweeney's) primary motivation is the social justice reforms this will produce," said Richard McGrath, the spokesman. "He is not opposed to the decriminalization bill — in fact, he shares the goals of the bill’s sponsors — but he wants to work in collaboration with his colleagues in the Senate Democratic Caucus to balance out the best timing to act.
"It’s a strategic decision to make sure the policy goal is achieved.”
But if marijuana legalization passes without this bill enacted, Boyer isn't convinced that legislative leaders will take social justice seriously.
Murphy, Sweeney and Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin all said that the top priority of marijuana legalization was racial and social justice. To ignore this bill would be hypocritical, Boyer said.
"Every single lawmaker — whether that be the governor, the senate president or the speaker — said 'justice' was the primary reason," Boyer said. "And if that's the primary reason, they should take care of the justice first and take care of the market second."
What's the next step?
The Senate Judiciary Committee needs to hold a hearing on the bill. At the same time, the Assembly needs to handle its side of the legislative process.
On Monday, the Assembly is scheduled to hold a committee hearing on two different marijuana decriminalization bills. One, which was introduced in January, would only decriminalize possession of up to 10 grams of marijuana, with steep civil penalties as high as $500 and expungements only after subjects attend an educational or substance treatment program.
And then there's the Quijano bill from last year, which was reintroduced within the last few days. That's more likely to be the companion Assembly bil
The Senate and Assembly will have to agree to major changes to one of these bills in order to reach a consensus. Only then will the new, amended bill be put up for a floor vote in both houses. If it passes, it'll be sent to Murphy's desk to become law.
Are we actually going to legalize weed in New Jersey?
The most recent polling data shows that 61% of New Jerseyans plan to vote for the legal weed constitutional amendment in November, according to a Monmouth University poll.
Despite being a traditionally liberal issue, legal weed seems to have bipartisan support, with 74% of Democrats, 64% of independents and 40% of Republicans supporting the ballot question.
“Support for the marijuana ballot measure is widespread in part because many who have no opinion on whether legalization is a good idea figure they might as well vote for it,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
But the numbers aren't that simple. When asked if they specifically support the idea of allowing adults to purchase marijuana from licensed businesses, only 48% thought it was a good idea, according to the Monmouth poll. Another 22% said they had no opinion.
Legal weed opponents have long said that what New Jerseyans are looking for is decriminalization — not full-scale legalization, with dispensaries and a new cannabis industry.
In a 2018 PublicMind poll by Fairleigh Dickinson University, voters were asked whether they supported full-scale marijuana legalization, decriminalization or to keep it illegal. In that poll, only 42% of voters were in favor of full-scale marijuana legalization.
Mike Davis writes about the seemingly never-ending push to legalize marijuana in New Jersey, including the effects it would have on the economy, the black market and regular people. No, he can't tell you where to buy illegal drugs. Contact him at email@example.com or @byMikeDavis on Twitter.