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Bill to decriminalize marijuana in N.J. passes in committee — and is amended to include hallucinogenic mushrooms

Decriminalization would remove criminal penalties for possessing marijuana. The bill also removes felony charges for holding magic mushrooms.

A vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a cannabis marketplace in Los Angeles.
A vendor bags psilocybin mushrooms at a cannabis marketplace in Los Angeles.Read moreRichard Vogel / AP

A key committee in the New Jersey Senate on Thursday unanimously approved a bill to remove criminal penalties for possession of up to six ounces of marijuana.

In a surprise move, an unidentified senator added an amendment to the bill to downgrade penalties for possessing up to an ounce of psilocybin, better known as hallucinogenic “magic mushrooms."

The vote marked the first time any marijuana decriminalization bill had been considered, let alone passed, in the Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee.

The bill, S 2535, with its mushroom amendment, was approved without debate or discussion.

On Nov. 3, two out of three voters in the Garden State approved a measure to legalize recreational cannabis. There was no mention of any hallucinogenics being included in the measure.

The amendment would make the possession of up to an ounce of psilocybin a disorderly persons offense. It is currently a third-degree felony.

“I’m 100% in favor of it,” Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D., Linden) said of the mushroom amendment. “I think most drugs should be decriminalized or at least downgraded to something less than a felony for personal use. You just saw Oregon downgrade heroin and cocaine. We’re not doing that."

Legalization eventually will create a statewide cannabis industry in New Jersey. Legislation and regulations to govern the industry could take months, if not years, to complete.

Decriminalization removes criminal penalties for possession and distribution of small quantities of marijuana.

About 100 people are arrested for possession every day in New Jersey, according to Chris Goldstein, a South Jersey spokesman for the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

“Justice for marijuana doesn’t start until arrests stop," Goldstein said. "And the constitutional amendment to legalize cannabis doesn’t do that, but this bill could.”

Kevin Sabet, a former drug policy adviser to three U.S. presidential administrations, previously led the opposition to legalizing marijuana in New Jersey and other states.

“It’s a gradual step to the legalization of all drugs,” Sabet said of marijuana. “We’ve seen mushrooms passed in Oregon, Denver and Washington, D.C. But at some point there’s going to be push back. ... What’s next? Heroin? Methamphetamine?”

The original marijuana decriminalization bill was sponsored by Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D., Newark). As the votes were being registered, Ruiz said she was “not happy with the entirety of the bill.”

“But it’s a compromise,” she said. “At least we’ve accomplished something. New Jersey is beginning to right its wrongs.”

She said the speed of the bill’s passage had left her in “a kind of haze.”

“We have to make sure that when we create the next frontier that we’ll have reparations and the opportunity to take someone from the street corner to a store front,” she said, referring to getting traditional drug dealers into the legal system.

Some industry insiders, who did not want to be identified, believe that the addition of the mushroom amendment could serve as a “poison pill” and scuttle the bill.

Scutari, the majority whip, said he expects the bill to pass a vote on the floor early next week. If approved, it will go to Gov. Phil Murphy for consideration.