State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Newark) accused Democratic legislative leaders of intentionally stalling a marijuana decriminalization bill Tuesday, claiming outside interests were behind the delays.
“I appeal to everyone in our state to consider why has it taken two years and seven months to pass a common-sense, compassionate, just law?” Rice said. “Could it be a structural bias entrenched in our state systems of government and criminal justice? Could it have something to do with the greed of investors, ‘insiders’ and others who seek to profit by forcing the recreational marijuana industry into New Jersey — the nation’s most densely populated state and most ill-suited to absorb the projected harm?”
Rice, along with Sens. Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City) and Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark), introduced a marijuana decriminalization bill on June 4. A different decriminalization measure also sponsored by Rice and a swath of Legislative Black Caucus Members was approved by the Assembly on June 18.
Neither bill has seen any movement in the Senate, where it would face few difficulties in winning 21 votes. A New Jersey Globe whip count conducted in December found lawmakers in the upper chamber who opposed marijuana legalization were overwhelmingly willing to support decriminalization.
“This legislation is not an earth-shattering pivot that would turn our state on its ear or hurl us into a chaotic upheaval. This is a simple, common sense, compassionate law that protects many residents,” Rice said. “It levels the playing field so that Blacks, people of color and those unable to afford the same legal representation as affluent offenders do not find themselves arrested, incarcerated and rendered unable to obtain work, housing or even student loans.”
Rice, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, said he has requested a meeting with Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) and Senate Judiciary Chairman Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden) to discuss the fast-tracking S2535, the bill also sponsored by Ruiz and Cunningham.
Some Democrats in the upper chamber have privately worried that decriminalizing cannabis could torpedo the state’s efforts at legalization.
New Jersey’s voters will decide whether recreational marijuana use will become the law of the land in November, and there are concerns among statehouse Democrats that pushing to decriminalize could lead to more ballot drop-off.
Ballot initiatives in New Jersey frequently see half as many votes as candidates at the top of the ticket.
Still, the inaction on decriminalization has left individuals arrested for marijuana use in a kind of limbo.
Last year, Gov. Phil Murphy signed into a law allowing the state’s residents to expunge their records of certain low-level offenses, including ones related to marijuana use, but months later, cannabis use is still criminal in the Garden State.
“Today, if offenders survive the arrest without being shot on the street, they are at peril of being incarcerated in crowded prisons during the coronavirus pandemic. We are subjecting pot smokers to all this risk of life and limb — and making taxpayers pick up the tab — because a bill concerning small amount marijuana charges languishes in committee?” Rice said. “What is wrong with us?