The heads of the black and Latino legislative caucuses are ramping up the pressure on legislative leadership and the Murphy administration to approve a measure decriminalizing possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana—a proposal generally opposed by Gov. Phil Murphy and leaders in the Legislature.
Both Sens. Nellie Pou, D-35th District, and Ron Rice, D-28th District, – chairs of the Latino and black caucuses respectively – also pushed for Gov. Phil Murphy to sign a bill lawmakers sent him that sets up an expungement process for certain marijuana offenses.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, conceded in May that legalization would have to be done via a ballot question during the 2020 elections after Murphy, Sweeney and other lawmakers were unable to muster support for the measure to pass the state Senate.
Rice was a staunch opponent of marijuana legalization efforts, but as for the social justice piece – he vowed to not vote on the budget without an end to cannabis arrests, a promise on which he followed through.
“We can’t wait another day for decriminalization and expungement measures that will free those unfairly targeted in arrest and incarceration,” Rice said at a Thursday morning press conference in the Trenton statehouse.
Senate Bill 3801 would decriminalize possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana and replace it with a $50 fine.
[B]ut the whole conversation as it relates to the marketing of it to African American and Latino communities is that it’s social justice. If that’s really the priority, then the question becomes why are we not addressing that immediately?
Sen. Ron Rice
The lower house version was approved by lawmakers in a committee vote last month but has yet to go for a full floor vote, while the upper house version has not even received a committee vote.
Rice hinted at potential amiability on the part of Sweeney to reconsider his opposition to decriminalization – saying he went from arguing it “wouldn’t see the light of day” to a more general opposition to the measure, according to Rice.
“It would go over to the next year, but the whole conversation as it relates to the marketing of it to African American and Latino communities is that it’s social justice. If that’s really the priority, then the question becomes why are we not addressing that immediately?” Rice said.
Rice maintained that “we can’t do expungement without decriminalization.” Indeed, marijuana would still be illegal even if Murphy signed the expungement legislation in full.
Murphy and Sweeney are both opposed to decriminalization, with Murphy arguing that route would open the state’s marijuana business “to the bad guys.” while Sweeney argued that it would “embolden the black market” and that the $50 fine for possession would be the equivalent of a traffic ticket.
Pou said the decriminalization and expungement proposals would “work towards a single goal to establish a fair, more just, less racially biased system and reduce the likelihood that a juvenile in the justice system becomes a lifetime in the justice system.”
In addition to Pou, Rice was flanked by a cast ensemble of other top lawmakers, including Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-31st District.
Even other lawmakers who were not present have thrown their support behind both measures – Sens. Teresa Ruiz, D-29th District, and Troy Singleton, D-7th District, according to Pou and Rice.
“We want to finally get to the point where we are treating people fairly,” Cunningham said. “We have to give people an opportunity to fall down and pick themselves up, and we cannot allow them to continue to fall down and instead reaching down, picking them up.”