The chairman of the Legislative Black Caucus wants State Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden) to give up his position at the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee over a refusal to move a marijuana decriminalization bill.
“Justice delayed is justice denied for the 100 New Jersey residents, mostly young, poor and minority, arrested every day for small amount marijuana offenses,” said State Sen. Ron Rice (D-Newark). “It was bad enough when we started this fight, but in today’s environment, 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. Enough is enough.”
In the past week, Rice, the chief opponent of marijuana legalization among Democrats in the legislature’s upper chamber, has pressed Scutari and Senate President Steve Sweeney to move a bill that would decriminalize possession of less than one pound of cannabis.
On Wednesday, Rice sent a letter to Sweeney asking Scutari be pulled from the chair’s seat.
“Senator Sweeney, there comes a time when patience is no longer the most useful virtue, and the scale must tile into full diligence and an unbridled rush for justice,” Rice said. “And so, I am asking that you remove Senator Scutari as chair of the Judiciary Committee.”
The senate president did not immediately respond to a 12:07 p.m. call seeking comment, but a source close to Sweeney said there was no circumstance in which Scutari would be replaced as Judiciary chairman.
Rice and State Sens. Sandra Cunningham (D-Jersey City) and Teresa Ruiz (D-Newark) have worked on the bill since before the onset of the pandemic, though it has seen no movement since being formally introduced in early June.
A whip count conducted by the New Jersey Globe in December found there were more than enough votes to pass decriminalization through the Senate, but such measures have seen little movement in the upper chamber, and with a legalization referendum on the ballot in November, there’s no indication that will change.
Democrats briefly considered pushing decriminalization through as a stopgap to align with an expungement bill Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law last year.
That measure allows residents to expunge their records of certain low-level offenses, including some related to marijuana use, but cannabis is still illegal in the Garden State.
Rice claimed Scutari was blocking decriminalization to boost the legalization referendum’s chances. Some Democrats have privately worried that moving decriminalization could spike the ballot initiative.
Last week, Scutari cast the deciding vote on an environmental justice bill that was important to the Legislative Black Caucus when the sponsor, State Sen. Nia Gill (D-Montclair), was absent.