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State Sen. Nicholas Scutari. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for the New Jersey Globe)

Lawmakers considering marijuana decriminalization as stop gap

With legal weed going to a vote in 2020, expungement left in the lurch

By Nikita Biryukov, November 20 2019 10:40 pm

Lawmakers are considering moving to decriminalize marijuana while waiting for the 2020 referendum on legalizing recreational marijuana, State Sen. Nicholas Scutari said.

“I think there’s competing interests with respect to decriminalization,” he said. “We don’t want to jeopardize the ballot measure by doing something that’s kind of a half-assed measure, but it’s under consideration.”

An expungement bill that was originally tied to two other marijuana bills — a since-passed medical marijuana expansion bill and a now-dead legalization bill — continues to languish despite top lawmakers from all three of the state’s top Democrats.

Now that legislative leaders have given up the push to legalize under the golden dome, the expungement bill has been thrust into something of a twilight zone.

While it could be signed into law, the measure would allow for the automatic expungement of low-level marijuana offenses, which absent new legislation, are still criminal offenses.

“How can you expunge things that are still illegal for at least the next year?” Scutari said. “That’s problematic for moving forward the expungement bill. Its number one priority is to automatically expunge first-time low-level possession users.”

Some Democrats who have publicly opposed legislation are more open to decriminalization, while some who backed legalization, including Gov. Phil Murphy, view decriminalization as a half measure that would give drug dealers free reign until next November, at the earliest.

No timeline for decriminalization has been established yet, nor is it clear if lawmakers will ultimately decide to pursue the measure as a stop gap.

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