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Assemblyman Jamel Holley. Photo by Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe

Holley concerned decriminalization could harm marijuana referendum

Lawmakers eyeing decriminalization as a stop gap

By Nikita Biryukov, November 25 2019 4:57 pm

Assemblyman Jamel Holley is concerned that decriminalizing marijuana may convince some voters to sit out a referendum on marijuana legalization set to hit the polls next November.

“It’s definitely going to lower the enthusiasm,” Holley said. “People are all in for full — like I said, we can have a vote today and it will pass. It will hurt some of the enthusiasm, but I think they understand the long-term goal of full legalization and full expungement. It’s just the legislative process and the steps that we got to take, unfortunately.”

New Jersey lawmakers have given up their bid to legalize marijuana through legislative means after again failing to whip enough votes for the measure in the senate.

Now, lawmakers are aiming to put the issue on the ballot for 2020, but the delay in action leaves an expungement bill meant primarily to clear the records of low-level marijuana offenders in the lurch.

The view is that allowing for the automatic expungement of something that is still illegal doesn’t make much sense, and decriminalization has come up as a possible fix between now and next November.

While some in the Senate, especially Democratic senators in South Jersey, find decriminalization easier to swallow than legalization, it comes with its own hurdles.

Gov. Phil Murphy has repeatedly bashed it as a half measure that would put the state’s marijuana market firmly in the hands of drug dealers.

A spokesman for Murphy pointed to the governor’s past comments on decriminalization and declined to comment further on the issue Monday.

Even Holley, the decriminalization bill’s sponsor, isn’t thrilled about it.

“This marijuana debate has been such a roller coaster, and when you’re dealing with the legislative process, there’s so many tweaks and turns that you have to go through to get through the end goal,” he said. “I’m not a big fan of decrim while I’m a sponsor. I’m not a big fan of the referendum, but I’m a sponsor. I’m going to support it.”

The concern among Democrats is that decriminalization could widen an enthusiasm gap between proponents and opponents of marijuana legalization.

There’s already significant ballot drop off in New Jersey that tends to favor older, whiter voters.

Those voters oppose marijuana legalization more often than not.

Legislative leaders haven’t decided one way or the other on decriminalization, though talks on the issue are ongoing in both chambers.

Either way, Holley’s sticking with the issue.

“We are dealing with minorities and changing minority lives. As a black, African American lawmaker, these things are going to take time, unfortunately,” he said. “Other things speed up and move right along. Commissions are done, and moneys are allocated when you look at the opioid and you look at the vape, but for the ones that hit mostly minorities, it always seems to take its time. And that’s always been my concern, but I’m in it for the long haul.”

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