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New bill would bar marijuana arrests for up to 1 pound

A bill introduced in the state Senate Thursday afternoon would ban arrests for possession and distribution of up to a pound of marijuana, instead replacing it with written warnings and fines.

Under Senate Bill 2535, possession and distribution of up to a pound of cannabis would still be illegal, but it would only be met by a written warning for the first offense. Any further offenses would result in a civil penalty of $25, or community service.

That comes months ahead of a ballot question that will go before the state’s voters during November’s presidential election on whether or not the state should legalize recreational cannabis for adult-use.

It is also despite multiple failed attempts to get a cannabis decriminalization bill past Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, Gov. Phil Murphy and Senate President Stephen Sweeney at Murphy's 2021 budget address in Trenton on Feb. 25, 2020.

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, Gov. Phil Murphy and Senate President Stephen Sweeney at Murphy’s 2021 budget address in Trenton on Feb. 25, 2020. – AARON HOUSTON

Murphy, Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin, D-19th District, and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-3rd District, have all previously been wary of decriminalization, arguing it could embolden the existing black market by reducing penalties for cannabis possession to the equivalent of a “traffic ticket.”

The most recent attempt to pass such a measure was during this past winter’s lame duck session, when lawmakers were hoping it could act as a stopgap until voters decided on, and hopefully approved, the November ballot question. But that effort was pulled in early January. 

Currently, possession of between 1 pound and 5 ounces could lead to between three and five years in jail, and fines of up to $25,000. The bill lowers that to a jail sentence of six months and fines of up to $1,000.

In any case, those court records would be sealed from the public eye.

Police would be barred from searching someone’s car for marijuana, under the bill, even if they thought they smelled it. The bill calls for any arrest or charge of marijuana prior to its effective date to be “deemed to have not occurred,” according to a statement from the Senate Democrats Office.

That means applicants would not have to petition the court for an expungement, as is the case under a law Murphy signed in December. But possession, while expungeable, is still illegal, which means someone can be arrested, charged and convicted.

S2535’s introduction comes amid the hundreds of George Floyd protests against police brutality and racial inequality, which have spread across the country in recent days.

The protests were sparked by video footage showing a Minneapolis police officer kneeling on Floyd’s neck, killing him after nearly nine minutes. Dozens of demonstrations were held in New Jersey over the past week, withs ones in Camden and Newark last Saturday garnering national attention for their lack of violence, which has plagued many other major cities protests.

Sen. Ronald Rice speaks during the Senate Health, Human Services and Senior Citizens Committee meeting regarding medical cannabis on May 20, 2019. - AARON HOUSTON

Rice

“We cannot wait until the fall while countless members of the black and brown communities are targeted for marijuana-related offenses,” Sen. Ron Rice, D-28th District, who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus, said Thursday in a statement.

“If this state really wants to push social justice reform without an economic reward, this is how you achieve that goal.”

The bill as introduced in the state Senate, but to date does not have a counterpart in the lower house, the state Assembly.

Daniel J. Munoz
Daniel Munoz covers politics and state government for NJBIZ. You can contact him at dmunoz@njbiz.com.

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