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State Sen. Ronald L. Rice. Photo by Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe.

Rice won’t vote for budget without decriminalization

Essex Senator: ‘No decriminalization — no justice – no vote’

By David Wildstein, June 12 2019 9:59 pm

State Sen. Ronald Rice (D-Newark) says he will not vote for a state budget unless it includes the decriminalization of recreational marijuana and the release of minorities currently incarcerated for possessing small amounts of cannabis.

“When it comes to principles, everyone has a bottom line.  And when it comes to the budget vote, my bottom line has everything to do with the decriminalization of recreational marijuana,” Rice said. “No decriminalization — no justice – no vote.”

Rice says that he’s using his budget vote as a protest and didn’t hesitate to criticize his Gov. Phil Murphy and Senate President Steve Sweeney over what he views as an attempt to “sell legislation to legalize recreational marijuana to black and brown people under the pretense of ‘social justice.’”

“After two years of feigned concern from state leadership and legislators about unfair arrests and convictions for people with small amount offenses – mostly black and brown, mostly poor New Jerseyans – I refuse to excuse the charade,” Rice said.  “As long as we have black and brown people in jail at a rate three times greater than whites who commit the same marijuana violations, I will not vote for a budget that asks my opinion on a millionaire’s tax or pensions for union workers.”

He says that “black and brown people cannot continue to be used as pawns in the chess game of Governor Phil Murphy, President Stephen Sweeney and the South Jersey political boss George Norcross.”

“It is time for all of us to stand together for justice for all, regardless of color – middle class, poor, millionaires and union workers alike,” said Rice.  “I call on all New Jerseyans to support the immediate passage and enactment of marijuana decriminalization to ensure a fair, unbiased legal process.”

The eleven-term senator from Essex County believes the state budget must include the $140 million he thinks taxpayers would save through releasing those in prison for small amount weed possession.

“I could not maintain my dignity as a person or my integrity as a senator were I to vote for any budget that does not include the $140 million cost savings gained through a decriminalization law that eliminates unjust judicial and correctional practices targeting poor, minority and urban residents,” Rice said.  “Any budget I support must incorporate the release of black and brown people being held in jail for small amount marijuana violations and the downgrading of their criminal charges to a lesser charge.”

From Rice’s point of view, legislators didn’t approve Murphy’s plan to legalize marijuana because they saw it as a “money-making ploy for wealthy people, political bosses, their families and friends.”

“They tried to pitch it to middle class and wealthy whites by repackaging the $140 million saved through the elimination of marijuana-related judicial costs and dangling it as property tax relief,” Rice said.  “Those who argued for legalization made a lot of noise about social justice.  If it really wasn’t about making money and was indeed to right wrongs and to establish justice, this year’s state budget deliberation is the ideal proving ground.

Rice says that “decriminalization and criminal record expungement legislation are common sense, compassionate approaches to social justice reform.”

“With legalization defeated and, in the media’s, rear-view mirror, the conversation has shifted to a new state drama rife with power, corruption, accusations and double-crossing,” he said.  “But meanwhile, the abandoned promise of social justice is hung out to dry in some alley in some city in a Garden State slowly growing into a moral wilderness.

“As separate measures, decriminalization would provide instant relief to black and brown people currently in the court and correctional system, and expungement would remove the yoke of lifelong penalties lingering from past convictions,” Rice said.

Rice also slammed Murphy and Sweeney for their lack of support for decriminalization.

“They’ve never really cared whether black and brown people presently incarcerated for small amount marijuana violations remain in jail, or if those now awaiting trial have their charges reduced to non-criminal offenses, or if anyone arrested today for small amounts of marijuana is oppressed with an unfair, overblown criminal charge.”

The senator says that “compromise and an open mind go a long way in government.”

“Senator Sweeney and I have agreed to keep the door open and continue talking. But negotiations require an equitable give and take,” Rice stated.  “If labor leaders want me and other legislators to protect their pension and healthcare benefits, how can I do that in good conscience, while they stay silent on marijuana legislation that not only impacts communities of color, but the integrity of our courts system and the very workers they represent? Just marijuana laws affect union members’ families as much as any citizen, rich or poor, who gets caught up in the system.”

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