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With the Voters' Referendum on the table in November 2020 to legalized recreational marijuana on the table, as an important piece of legislation is now law.
A major step in halting arrests for marijuana was taken when the state Assembly voted 63-10 with five members abstaining to pass the measure, one of two decriminalization bills currently proposed in the state Legislature. It seeks to replace arrests for possessing up to two ounces of weed with a civil fine of $50 and lessens jail time and fines for possession of larger amounts of pot on a sliding scale.
The other bill, which would decriminalize up to one pound of marijuana, was introduced in the state Senate. Neither bill would legalize marijuana, meaning those found with marijuana on them would still likely have purchased it from a dealer selling illegally. Instead, voters must decide on the ballot in November if the Garden State will allow legal weed sales.
But the changes would mean fewer people facing jail time for nonviolent offenses and clear records of those with past weed convictions. Those arrest records are hurdles for people applying to jobs, loans and public housing.
In both houses of the Legislature, lawmakers moved swiftly to introduce the bills following massive protests police brutality and mass incarceration. While some are seeing systemic injustices in law enforcement play out on their TVs for the first time, marijuana reform advocates have long decried weed laws for their disproportionate impact on Black communities.
Police in New Jersey arrests more people for marijuana possession than every state except Texas and New York, according to FBI arrest data. And Black people are arrested at a rate more than three times higher than white people, although people of both races use marijuana at similar rates.
Two ounces of weed, the amount decriminalized by the Assembly bill, can make more than 100 joints. The Senate bill seeks to decriminalize eight times as much and would give those caught with marijuana a written warning first, followed by $25 fines for subsequent offenses.
The Senate bill would also remove penalties for those on parole or probation who use marijuana and do not allow police to stop someone because they smell marijuana.
But even at two ounces, New Jersey’s decriminalization bill mirrors New York policies and goes further than Philadelphia and Delaware, which have decriminalized about one ounce.
“New Jersey is being really progressive in starting this conversation,” said DeVaughn Ward of the Marijuana Policy Project. “At two ounces, it would still be progress for the region. The reality is that for every increase is another life that could potentially be saved; somebody that could not be forced to encounter law enforcement.”
This isn’t the first effort to stop marijuana arrests. The Assembly voted on a bill to decriminalize 15 grams of weed in 2012, but it did not become law. Last year, a lawmaker introduced another measure, but it languished, too.
Pushback from top elected officials could be to blame for the delays. But as legalization has stalled, Gov. Phil Murphy and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, both Democrats, have shifted their stances, saying they are open to decriminalization to stop arrests.
Either bill would need to pass the Assembly and the Senate — both with Democrat majorities — before moving to Murphy’s desk for a signature.