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Senate President Pro-Tempore Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark). (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Democratic Senators post decriminalization bill

With possession limit at 1 pound, measure likely to pass without much opposition

By Nikita Biryukov, June 04 2020 4:30 pm

Democratic state senators introduced a long-awaited marijuana decriminalization bill Thursday.

The bill, sponsored by Sens. Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark), Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City) and Ron Rice (D-Newark), would remove criminal penalties for possession of one pound or less of marijuana and replace them with, at worst, a $25 fine.

“The War on Drugs has ravaged communities of color for far too long. While we await voter approval of legalization, we cannot forget about those arrested and incarcerated every day on marijuana-related charges,” Ruiz said. “By decriminalizing certain marijuana offenses, we can prevent countless unnecessary arrests and the attendant legal consequences over the next seven months.”

Over the last two years, Democrats in Trenton have repeatedly tried to legalize through legislative means, but those efforts fell short after they failed to gather 21 votes in the Senate.

After those efforts failed, lawmakers in both chambers overwhelmingly passed a constitutional amendment to legalize recreational cannabis. Voters will decide whether or not that amendment goes through in November.

“We have been over-penalizing marijuana offenses for far too long. We all know it is not nearly as dangerous as heroin or cocaine and it has no place being classified with them in statute,” Cunningham said. “This legislation will right the ship, revising the damaging criminal codes put in place under the war on drugs, which were intentionally created to target the black community.”

While the legalization bill stalled, other marijuana measures have faced less trouble.

Last year, lawmakers approved a bill expanding the state’s medicinal marijuana programs, and, months later, Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law a bill allowing residents to expunge their records of low-level offenses, including ones related to cannabis.

But, while persons convicted of minor marijuana offenses can get their records cleared, the drug remains illegal.

There was some worry among Democrats that pushing decriminalization could torpedo the legalization ballot question. In any case, the decriminalization bill was due to come out by the end of March but saw significant delays after the onset of the pandemic.

The clearest difference between Thursday’s bill and past attempts at decriminalization is the maximum allowable quantity of marijuana. Previous versions put the number at 5 pounds. Thursday’s pegged it at just one.

Politically, it’s a deft move. A New Jersey Globe whip count conducted in December found there were more than enough votes in the Senate to pass a decriminalization bill, though some members — Democrats and Republicans — expressed concerns about possession limits, warning they would not back the bill if it provided safe haven to drug dealers.

That’s unlikely to be a concern now.

“Whether or not voters decide to legalize marijuana in November, this should not change our stance on moving forward with the decriminalization of marijuana,” Rice said. “We cannot wait until the fall while countless members of the black and brown communities are targeted for marijuana-related offenses. If this state really wants to push social justice reform without an economic reward, this is how you achieve that goal.”

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