UNION COUNTY, NJ — A bipartisan marijuana decriminalization bill co-sponsored by a local state senator is providing opposition to Gov. Phil Murphy’s campaign promise of full legalization for the drug’s recreational use.
State Sen. Joseph Cryan, a Democrat who represents parts of Union county, served as Union County sheriff from 2015 to 2017, and became the county’s undersheriff after being elected to the Senate in November, is a co-sponsor of the latest decriminalization bill. The bill would lessen the penalties for the possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana.
Sen. Robert Singer, a Republican representing parts of Monmouth County, and Sen. Ron Rice, a Democrat who represents parts of Essex County, are the bill’s primary sponsors.
“We’re not legalizing the sale of it,” Singer said in a phone interview, adding that complete legalization would exacerbate the negative impacts of marijuana, such as a possible rise in the rate of homelessness and auto accidents. “We’re saying, if you deal, you’re going to jail.”
Rice,the leader of the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus, and Cryan both did not respond to requests for comment last week.
State Sen. Nicholas Scutari, who also represents parts of Union County and serves as a municipal prosecutor in Linden, currently has a recreational legalization bill before the state Legislature. Scutari said he saw the Singer-Rice bill as an opposition to his own, and that decriminalization doesn’t address social issues, “because people are still going to be ticketed. People are still going to be paying fines.”
“To me, decriminalization creates more profits for drug dealers,” Scutari said in a recent phone interview. “It makes the black market a more vibrant market.”
Scutari’s bill would legalize the recreational use of marijuana for those older than 21, but restrict individuals from growing the plant at home. His bill provides that people could legally purchase marijuana from licensed dispensaries around the state, generating tax revenue.
The decriminalization bill works differently. Anyone who possesses 10 grams or less of marijuana would face a civil penalty fine of $150 for the first violation, a $200 fine for the second violation and $500 for any subsequent offenses.
The court would be able to waive the penalties in the case of “extreme financial hardship,” the bill states.
The state would receive $50 of each imposed penalty for the Drug Education Program Fund, while the municipality in which the offense occurred would receive the remainder for “general uses.”
This bill also creates a new criminal offense: If a minor obtains a marijuana-infused product that is bought somewhere legally, the seller would be charged with a disorderly persons offense. The bill posits that any marijuana products should be stored in original, child-resistant packaging.
The bill has provisions to expunge the records of those who go through a drug treatment program within six months of a violation in a three-year period. Records of those who already have previously been convicted of possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana could also be expunged.
Local municipalities and marijuana reform groups still remain split on the issue of legalization and decriminalization.
A resolution was passed by the Linden City Council on Feb. 20 supporting the proposed decriminalization bill. Councilman Peter Brown Jr., who has previously raised concerns about the impact of legalization on Linden, introduced the resolution.
“The intention of it seems more toward making money for, not just the state, but also for businesses,” Brown said of the legalization bill. “There’s a big push from businesses and I want to say over 40 law firms (want) to legalize” marijuana.
Clark Mayor Sal Bonaccorso, a Republican, said he’s still on the fence with regard to decriminalization and legalization, and would like to know how much money legalization would bring into municipalities. He would want any money raised from legalization — projected up to $300 million — to go toward state’s public pension system.
“I think that’s the job of the Legislature, to reach out to the mayors of the towns to see the feeling in their towns,” Bonaccorso said.
Marijuana is used by African-Americans and whites at about the same rate, but the former account for a disproportionate share of marijuana-possession arrests, according to a 2013 study by the American Civil Liberties Union. While some say decriminalization addresses the racial justice issue, Dianna Houenou, policy counsel for the ACLU of New Jersey said the proposed measure is not enough.
“Decriminalization does not address many of the problems with racial justice,” said Houenou, who is also part of New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform. “Under the decriminalization scheme, we’re still penalizing people for using marijuana. There would still be arrests if people can’t pay their fines and fees. We can expect those arrests will predominantly be made for poor and people of color.”
Cryan was originally a primary sponsor of a similar decriminalization bill introduced in January that decriminalized the possession of 15 grams or less of marijuana.