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Senate President Steve Sweeney. (Photo: Kevin Sanders for New Jersey Globe)

Sweeney thinks he has 21 Democratic votes for marijuana cleanup

All underage users subject to graduated warning system under new amendments

By Nikita Biryukov, February 19 2021 1:19 pm

Senate President Steve Sweeney (D-West Deptford) believes he has the votes to clear a newly-amended marijuana cleanup bill through the full Senate on Monday, he told the New Jersey Globe.

“I think I might have 21 Democrats, to be honest with you,” he said, adding he’d only be sure “when we cast the vote.”

At 3 p.m. Friday, the Senate Judiciary Committee will hear a version of the bill with amendments drafted by a working group formed by members of the Legislative Black and Latino Caucuses.

The bill still largely resembles past versions, but it would not levy the same penalties for all underage users. Everyone below the age of 21 would be subject to a graduated system of written warnings that would see users’ parents notified on a second offense and see them referred to community-based treatment or counseling groups on the third violation, said State Sen. Nellie Pou (D-Paterson), the chair of the Legislative Latino Caucus.

Underage alcohol offenses would be subject to those same penalties.

“We’re making it all the same,” Pou said.

Previous versions of the bill levied fines of up to $50 on users aged 18, 19 and 20 found in possession of Marijuana.

The new bill also requires law enforcement agencies scrub records of youth marijuana offenses every two years or when a given underage user turns 21, whichever comes first.

Like past versions, the proposal increases criminal liability for “law enforcement officers for official deprivation of civil rights concerning unlawful law enforcement interaction with underage persons regarding possession or consumption violations,” Pou said.

That provision is not enough for some members of the Black and Latino Caucus, Sweeney said.

“The ones that are not supportive are looking for qualified immunity,” Sweeney said. “That is a much larger discussion they’re trying to insert into this bill. The language that we’re going to vote on came from the African American and Latino Caucuses. Not everyone’s always unanimous, but the language was coming from the minority caucuses.”

The bill explicitly requires police have their body cameras enabled during interactions. Those records must be reviewed by the state Attorney General’s Office, which must submit a report to the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, the state body tasked with administrating the state’s legal marijuana market.

Amendments would also bar municipalities from imposing additional civil penalties for marijuana use.

Gov. Phil Murphy and lawmakers in the Senate have for weeks struggled to reach a deal on penalties for underage marijuana use even as they hurtled toward procedural deadlines that could force the governor to take out his veto pen.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin delayed a Feb. 8 quorum that could have made the legalization and decriminalization bills law without his signature in the face of the threat of a conditional veto from the governor.

On Thursday, Coughlin cancelled an Assembly voting session and five committee meetings, pushing the procedural deadline to Monday.

The delays to Assembly business — new bills must be introduced at a quorum, which the Assembly cannot call without upending marijuana talks — have rankled some lawmakers, but optimism about the cleanup bill’s chances has continued to rise since State Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Linden), the chamber’s top legalization advocate, declared talks dead Wednesday.

Scutari on Friday told the New Jersey Globe he was “optimistic” but “very cautious” and declined to say whether he thought Sweeney’s whip count was on the money.

“I’ll leave that to him,” he said.

Earlier Friday afternoon, Politico New Jersey reported increased optimism among Senate Democrats.

Pou’s outlook was among the more sanguine ones.

“We are going to be moving the bill today out of the judiciary committee,” she told the New Jersey Globe. “And I believe there will be the support, hopefully, of the 21 votes for the bill on Monday, yes.”

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