A bill to decriminalize small amounts of cannabis passed in the Senate Monday 29-4, after being pulled by the Assembly for language that would downgrade the offense of possessing psilocybin, or magic mushrooms.
Assemblyman Jamel Holley, D-20th District, the bill’s primary sponsor, said he believed the inclusion of mushrooms in Senate Bill 2535 was a poison pill and was both irresponsible and poor judgment.
S2535 would decriminalize possession of up to six ounces of cannabis, and would also downgrade penalties for possessing up to an ounce of psilocybin from a third-degree felony to a disorderly persons offense.
“[The cannabis decriminalization bill] has always been about the opportunity to address wrongful policies and begin to reverse the damage done through decades of social injustice, not mushrooms,” Holley said. “I think it’s very irresponsible to include this amendment at the last hour [with] all these thousands of people looking for a level of relief.”
Under the bill, distribution of up to one ounce of cannabis would carry a civil penalty for the first offense and would be a fourth-degree crime for any subsequent offenses.
“The lives of thousands of New Jerseyans who were looking forward to restarting their lives has now been delayed,” Holley said.
Sen. Nick Scutari, D-District 22, defended the inclusion of mushrooms in the legislation.
“The bill we wrote is a solid bill, and they haven’t bothered to really consider the bill fully. I can’t get an answer as to why. My estimation is that it’s a miserable failure to lock up college kids, or anyone experimenting with drugs, giving them a sentence of three to five years,” Scutari said.
“I think the press didn’t do the bill any favors. It was the lead story that mushrooms were being decriminalized in New Jersey, and that’s not what we’re doing. We’re just regrading it from a felony to a misdemeanor, which still carries with it up to six months in jail, by the way,” he said. “People just didn’t bother to read it, is my thought. They were looking at the headlines and reacting and not looking at the actual sentencing guidelines.”
An insider with direct knowledge of the discussions and who helped craft the bills told NJBIZ that he was shocked by the inclusion of mushrooms.
“We weren’t advocating for that,” he said. “Can it get worked out? Sure. Will it get worked out? I have no idea, but it’s not really my fight.”
With decriminalization stalled and legalization not on the schedule for either the Senate or Assembly, the Jan. 1 deadline looms. If neither are passed before Jan. 1, a person who gets arrested and prosecuted for cannabis possession could make a constitutional challenge that the state constitution affords them the right to possess cannabis, thus leaving the courts to decide the parameters of legal adult-use cannabis.
Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU-NJ, called the holding of the bill “a mistake.”
“People continue to be arrested, prosecuted, and convicted for marijuana possession in NJ, jeopardizing their lives, when voters overwhelmingly voted yes to legalize. We need relief, and it needs to happen now,” Sinha tweeted.
“We’ve known about the ballot question & the likelihood of its passage for a year. For months, we warned officials that we’re on track to continue arrests post-Election Day. And here we are,” he tweeted. “It’s a gross injustice that NJ hasn’t stopped arrests when it could easily have.”
After the bill’s passage in the Senate, Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-District 29, released a statement that she was “proud to have been a driving force behind what will be the most progressive decriminalization bill in the country.”
Decriminalizing first offenses for low-level distribution, she said, will “ensure [people don’t] become entangled in the system the first time they are caught selling small quantities of marijuana,” calling it “another step towards bringing justice and equity to historically impacted communities.”