Lawmakers on Monday sent Gov. Phil Murphy a bill setting up an expungement process for low-level cannabis offenses, even without a bill to legalize marijuana and with hesitation to move forward on another proposal to decriminalize cannabis.
The state Senate approved Senate Bill 3205 in a 24-12 vote and the Assembly approved its own version – Assembly Bill 4498 – in a 50-15 vote with six abstentions. The legislation is the only marijuana proposal that made its way to the governor’s desk.
S3205 would categorize possession of between one pound and five pounds as a third degree offense. The law would let anyone charged with possession of up to five pounds, before the law takes effect, to apply immediately for expungement, or wait 18 months if they are charged after the law takes effect.
The measure puts a three-year waiting period in place for anyone with a criminal record of possessing more than five pounds of cannabis. Anyone with cannabis offenses on their record would be protected by “virtual expungement,” meaning that any marijuana offenses could not be used as a reason to deny them financial services, educational or career opportunities.
But the expungement of up to five pounds spooked many lawmakers and was pinned as part of what ultimately killed the legalization efforts in March.
“That’s not a person who just accidentally had some with them and was picked and stopped, this is someone who is a dealer,” Sen. Ron Singer, R-30th District, said at the Monday voting session prior to the vote. “Five pounds is not a minor amount, five pounds is a dealer and to allow a dealer to walk away with expungement is morally wrong.”
Still, many supporters of the bill scored it as a social justice victory.
“Revising state expungement law forges a path to real social justice for our citizens,” A4498 sponsor Assemblyman Jamal Holley, D-20th District, said in a Monday statement. “Broader regulation will give residents the opportunity to right the wrongs of the past and clean the slate, enabling them to gain employment and seize the opportunities life presents them.”
“Whatever debt they were supposed to pay to society, they are asking for an opportunity to turn their life around and become… productive citizens. These are people who have already paid their debt to society, are they going to spend the rest of their lives paying and repaying and repaying?” Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-31st District, said prior to casting her vote at the Monday voting session.
State legislators were not able to muster the votes in the state Senate to approve a bill legalizing recreational marijuana.
Meanwhile, an Assembly vote Monday to expand the state’s medical marijuana program was put on hold to allow Murphy’s office to provide more input on the measure. The Assembly had to take up another vote on the medical marijuana bill because of a last-minute amendment at the Senate voting session.
“There’s a process that makes this a lot easier, which is when you see the bills, you talk about them, before we pass them, not after we pass them,” Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, told reporters following the Monday voting session.
“So [Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin] and myself mentioned to the governor we would be happy to look at any concerns they have on the marijuana bill, not that we’ll agree or disagree… but at least try not to get into a situation where we pass a bill and then we have to go through an override threat,” Sweeney added.
Coughlin, D-19th District, told reporters earlier in the day that Assembly lawmakers wanted to take time to look over the governor’s input, but he and the front office declined to specify the nature of their concerns about the bill.
“The Legislature slowed down the process in the interest of finding middle ground with us,” said one person in the front office close to the discussions.