Home>Governor>Ruiz, Scutari pull names from marijuana cleanup bill, back up objections from Legislative Black Caucus

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Ruiz, Scutari pull names from marijuana cleanup bill, back up objections from Legislative Black Caucus

With legislators in revolt, penalties for underage marijuana possession appear dead in the water

By David Wildstein and Nikita Biryukov, January 08 2021 2:38 pm

State Sen. Teresa Ruiz and Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari have removed their names from a bill to clean up the state’s yet-unsigned legal marijuana enabling legislation after objections from the black and Latino legislators, a move that will delay a vote by the full Senate on Monday.

“I could never lend my name to something that could potentially have unintended consequence that could send more black and brown juveniles into a system that will handcuff them for the rest of their lives,” said Ruiz, who chairs the Senate Education Committee and was first to pull her support for the cleanup bill during a caucus meeting Friday.

The lawmakers object to measures in a cleanup bill advanced by committees in both chambers Friday that would levy fines of up to $250 for possession of six ounces of less of marijuana, or of up to $500 for more than that, on persons ages 18-20 and that would limit police to “curbside warnings” and “stationhouse adjustments” when interacting with minors found in possession of marijuana.

“I stand with the Legislative Black Caucus and Senator (Ronald) Rice,” said Scutari, a 20-year supporter of marijuana legalization.

He said he agrees with Rice that proposed changes to the bill would lead to “more interactions for Black and Brown people with the police.”

Rice on Friday told the New Jersey Globe those provisions would see more of the state’s non-white residents stopped by police, likening it to an infamous New York City policy that disparately targeted black and Latino residents.

“It becomes a stop-and-frisk bill if you really look at the language when they talk about curbside and stationhouse adjustments,” he said. “We’re right back where we started with some fancy modern day words.”

It may now be up to Gov. Phil Murphy to negotiate a new bill, though Rice and Ruiz both wanted him to sign the legalization and decriminalization bills lawmakers sent to his desk in mid-December.

Earlier this week, Murphy proposed penalties for underage marijuana use to the legislature, saying he would not sign those bills absent civil consequences for people under the age of 21 who are caught with the drug.

“I believe the legislature is being held hostage on this one by the governor,” Rice said. “I’m very supportive of the governor. I was there when he first ran before people even got on board, and I will continue to support him — but when he’s wrong, he’s wrong.”

The decriminalization and legalization bills have sat unmoving on Murphy’s desk since being sent there roughly three weeks ago.

The governor wants to sign those bills simultaneously, meaning his concerns over penalties for underage use in the legalization bill are holding up the removal of criminal penalties for marijuana use more than two months after voters backed a constitutional amendment legalizing the drug.

“Every single day that bill doesn’t get signed, people are getting a jacket, a title, a scarlet letter and getting picked up into precisely what we’re trying to prevent — keeping people from getting caught up into the criminal justice system,” Ruiz said.

The governor’s office hasn’t yet abandoned the cleanup. A senior administration official speaking on the condition of anonymity told the New Jersey Globe the front office was marshaling advocates to lobby legislators in its favor.

Rev. Charles Boyer, a Murphy ally and the founding director of Salvation and Social Justice, was discussing the matter with State Sen. Nia Gill (D-Montclair) back to supporting the legislation, the official said.

“I will always look for the least punitive ways to deal with Black youth,” Boyer said. “We look forward to alternative language that is even more restorative than what was proposed.”

But it’s unclear how successful such a push will be as Democratic lawmakers in both chambers publicly lob criticisms over the cleanup bill.

“This proposal is regressive, draconian and ethically perverse,” Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-Roselle) said. “It is my sincere hope that this governor reconsiders his proposed conditions to this bill, which appears more focused on generating revenue from poor people than safeguarding public health.”

The administration also sought to push back on claims that the bill advanced Thursday would be alone in creating penalties for underage use, charging provisions creating criminal penalties for the same were already present in the legalization bill.

Such penalties exist, but they’re only present to individuals who lie about their age to purchase cannabis or enter a marijuana facility or who possess marijuana purchased from sellers on the black market.

The cleanup bill had been approved by the Senate Judiciary and Assembly Appropriations Committees on Thursday in votes that largely fell along party lines. It makes a number of other changes, including to allow persons convicted of marijuana and hashish offenses to expunge those offenses sooner.

Those changes were well-received by advocates from the New Jersey branches of the ACLU and NORML, who urged further changes to ensure fines were not applied unevenly across demographic groups.

Scutari said that more cleanup bills would be likely over the next six months as lawmakers.

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