Gov. Phil Murphy threw his weight behind the decriminalization of marijuana as “short-term relief” until a 2020 ballot measure that will ask voters if the state should legalize recreational cannabis.
Murphy has previously been an opponent of decriminalization, arguing it would open the state’s marijuana business “to the bad guys.”
His sudden reversal comes less than a day after a report by NJ.com highlighting that as talks have failed to push a bill through the state Legislature to legalize adult-use marijuana, the focus would instead be on decriminalization.
“Decriminalization of adult-use marijuana cannot be our long-term solution, but we must now turn to it for critical short-term relief while we await a ballot measure on legalization next November,” Murphy said in a statement late Tuesday morning.
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“Maintaining a status quo that sees roughly 600 individuals arrested, disproportionately people of color, in New Jersey every week for low-level drug offenses is wholly unacceptable,” the governor added.
Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, has also previously been opposed, arguing that decriminalization would “embolden the black market” because the fines associated with it would be the equivalent of a traffic ticket, but he has also told reporters that he would be “willing to listen” to lawmakers pushing for the proposal.
Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District, agreed in a radio segment earlier this month that decriminalization would be an ideal “short-term” solution for reducing the level of cannabis-related offenses, barring a legalization bill.
“I do have concerns about that, but I think it’s a short-term issue because, I believe, if we put it on the ballot, it would pass,” Coughlin said in his monthly “Speak to the Speaker” radio segment. “I’ve come around on that issue some. My concern is we would create a clientele for bad guys who are feeling secure that they wouldn’t be charged criminally.”
The proposed Senate Bill 3801 would decriminalize possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana and institute a $50 fine rather than criminal charges. In late-June, the heads of the black and Latino legislative caucus urged the governor and both houses to act on S3801, framing it as a social justice issue for African American and Latino communities which have been disproportionately targeted by law enforcement over cannabis-related offenses.
“The whole argument as it relates to the marketing to African American and Latino communities is that it is social justice. If that’s really the priority, then the question becomes why are we not addressing that immediately?” Sen. Ron Rice, D-28th District, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, said in June.
A separate measure is expected to move through the state Legislature setting up an expungement process for certain low-level cannabis offenses. Murphy sent the bill back to lawmakers in late August.
Sweeney has assured that measure would be approved at the next Senate voting session – scheduled for Dec. 16 – and that Murphy has only sought minor, technical language changes.
Sweeney’s office did not immediately return a request for comment.