Almost all arrests for possession of marijuana would be eliminated in New Jersey if a new bill is adopted by the state legislature.
The bill would not legalize marijuana — that decision is being left to the voters on Nov. 3. But the new legislation seeks to reduce cannabis users’ encounters with police.
“New Jersey is ready to vote yes on recreational marijuana," said the bill’s sponsor, State Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D., Essex). “But until we get that up and running, we shouldn’t have laws in place that create obstacles for people, particularly for communities of color. This is important at any moment in time, but especially now.”
The decriminalization bill (S2535) would allow the possession of up to a pound of marijuana without the threat of arrest. A first offender would receive a written warning. Subsequent offenses would result in a $25 fine.
Currently, the penalty for possessing 50 grams or less is a fine of up to $1,000 and six months in jail.
Police would be forbidden from using the odor of marijuana as “probable cause” for a traffic stop. The bill also would provide for the immediate expungement of marijuana offenses from criminal records. It would remove penalties for possessing weed paraphernalia such as pipes and bongs.
“In New Jersey, black and brown people are disproportionately arrested for marijuana arrests,” said Ami Kachalia of the ACLU of New Jersey. “Recently we published a report that found people who are black are 3.45 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites.”
Possession of one ounce to five pounds of marijuana is currently punishable by three to five years in prison and a fine of up to $25,000.
The bill was sent to the state Senate’s judiciary committee on June 4. Its co-sponsors include State Sens. Sandra D. Cunningham (D., Union) and Ron Rice (D., Essex). In a statement, Cunningham said the criminal codes involving marijuana “were intentionally created to target the black community.”
An aide for Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D., Gloucester) said the Democratic caucus was reviewing the legislation, but added that “the timing is the issue.” One worry is that a push for decriminalization could derail the effort to make marijuana legal for adult use.
“We believe legalization is the priority," the aide said. “That comes first and foremost. We have to get the voters to support that.”
In 2018, there were about 36,050 arrests or encounters with New Jersey police that involved marijuana. Of those, about 13,480 possession arrests involved someone who was black, according to FBI data complied by the ACLU of New Jersey.
A South Jersey pastor said the time to act is now.
“For decades, the black community has been over-policed and overwhelmingly prosecuted in the drug war,” said the Rev. Charles Boyer of Bethel A.M.E. Church in Woodbury. “This bill helps to remedy what we know has been unjust.”
The ballot question that could legalize marijuana in the state is framed only as a “yes or no answer,” he said. The new decriminalization bill, if passed quickly, would immediately reduce police pressure on black and brown communities.
“That’s why the bill is important now,” Boyer said. “In light of what we are seeing now nationally after the death of George Floyd, we should be doing everything we can to minimize contact between black communities and police. And New Jersey is one of the worst when it comes down to the law and marijuana enforcement.”
It’s not just motor vehicle stops. On Wednesday, prosecutors charged a Woodlynne Borough police officer with assault after he allegedly sprayed two people with pepper spray without provocation. The officer, Ryan Dubiel, said he had been responding to a report about the smell of marijuana. The Camden County prosecutor released a 911 call that recorded a property owner complaining about loitering teens smoking marijuana. According to his alleged victims, neither had been smoking weed.
Advocates for marijuana reform said legalization by itself will not solve systemic problems. In addition, legalization can take two or three years to become effective as lawmakers work out the regulations that would govern a state-run cannabis industry.
“This [decriminalization] bill addresses problems we’ve found post-legalization in states such as Colorado and Massachusetts,” said Chris Goldstein, an organizer with South Jersey NORML, which advocates for legalizing marijuana. “Arrests in Colorado of people under 21 for marijuana actually went up, with the number of arrests of black teens in Denver going up the most.”
Possessing or distributing marijuana would remain forbidden within 1,000 feet of a school or 500 feet of a park or public building.
If an offender can’t afford the fines, they could pay off any penalties by doing community service.