Senate President Stephen Sweeney said Thursday he is “willing to listen” to calls by several lawmakers to decriminalize marijuana—a proposal in the Legislature which he has been opposed to for months.
Earlier in the day, the heads of the black and Latino legislative caucuses ramped up pressure on legislative leadership to act on the measure, Senate Bill 3801, which would decriminalize possession of up to 2 ounces of marijuana and institute a $50 fine rather than criminal charges.
Sweeney, D-3rd District, conceded in May that legalization would have to be done via a ballot question during the 2020 election, after Gov. Phil Murphy, Sweeney and other lawmakers were unable to muster support in March for the measure to pass the state Senate.
“We can’t wait another day for decriminalization and expungement measures that will free those unfairly targeted in arrest and incarceration,” Sen. Ron Rice, D-28th District – who chairs the Legislative Black Caucus and has been among the most vocal opponents of marijuana legalization – said on Thursday.
“I’m looking to sit down with him,” Sweeney, in turn, told reporters later that day following the Senate voting session. “I’m not there at this point, but I’m willing to listen.”
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 it would “embolden the black market” and that the $50 fine for possession would be the equivalent of a traffic ticket.
The Legislature sent Murphy a bill on June 10 that creates expungement process for certain cannabis-related offenses, but the bill was originally crafted with the intention of accompanying the adult-use and medical marijuana expansion bills.
Although lawmakers at Thursday’s press conference urged Murphy to sign the expungement bill, Rice maintained that “we can’t do expungement without decriminalization.”