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Legislators: Marijuana decriminalization is long overdue. Here’s what the bill says. | Opinion

Senator M. Teresa Ruiz and Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly | November 15, 2020 | The Star-Ledger |

If we want to speak honestly and directly about long-held racial disparities and societal injustice in marijuana enforcement policy in New Jersey, we have plenty of data – plus an untold number of wrecked lives – with which to frame the argument.

Indeed, the data speak loudly, as through a bullhorn. One statistic, often cited, states the case about as plainly as it can be stated, the one showing that Black people are 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana than whites, despite similar usage rates.

The so-called “war on drugs,” in New Jersey, a failed war, has too often become a war on communities of color, which have witnessed the mass incarceration of their sons, daughters, husbands and wives, through the aggressive enforcement of current laws that have disproportionately affected millions of people, not to mention the neighborhoods and communities from which they come.

Today, though, we in New Jersey have an opportunity to address these wrongful policies and begin to reverse the damage done through decades of racial and social injustice. When marijuana decriminalization legislation we are sponsoring (S2535/ A1897) becomes law, our state will start to right these wrongs and maybe, just maybe, lives and communities that have suffered most under these discriminatory practices of the past will begin to be made whole.

As we put forward our legislation, we do so bolstered by data that continues to bear out stark truths concerning our current misguided laws and enforcement policies. A recent ACLU report found that New Jersey ranked 11th in the country for the highest rate of arrests of Black people for marijuana possession in 2018. The same report noted that New Jersey saw an increase of almost 50% in its marijuana possession arrest rate in the years between 2010 and 2018.

We also note that New Jersey makes roughly 32,000 marijuana possession arrests each year – more than 600 per week, according to FBI statistics. Such statistics are not just numbers but harsh realities that shout out the need for systemic change. We believe this is at least part of the reason New Jersey’s voters recently gave their unequivocal support to a referendum calling for marijuana legalization.

Yet in the legalization-enabling legislation, as well as the decriminalization bills, it is important that we not forget the racial and social justice aspects of this issue or the neighborhoods and communities that have been ravaged under current law. For too many young men and women of color, often from impoverished areas, an arrest on a simple marijuana charge can be a life-changing event and not one for the better. That is one reason we include some practical safeguards in the new law, such as one stating that the mere “odor of marijuana or hashish,” shall not “constitute reasonable articulable suspicion” to initiate a search of a suspect thought to be in violation of a marijuana law.

Decriminalizing marijuana and pushing new and more equitable laws might not solve all our societal ills overnight, it will go a long way toward making sure our criminal and civil justice systems begin to operate with greater equality toward all.

Under our decriminalization legislation:

  • Possession of up to 6 ounces of marijuana will be decriminalized completely;
  • Distribution of up to 1 ounce would result in a warning for a first offense; and a fourth-degree crime for subsequent offenses
  • Certain pending charges would be dismissed – including for the unlawful distribution of less than 1 ounce of marijuana, or less than 5 grams of hashish and for obtaining or possessing more than 50 grams of marijuana or obtaining or possessing 50 grams or less.

The bill also includes sections that speak more fairly to possession of drug paraphernalia, to pre-trial release, and to probation and parole implications. Additionally, the bill would regrade possession of 1 ounce or less of psilocybin mushrooms from a third-degree to a disorderly persons offense.

As the chief sponsors of this legislation, we see these and other reforms as steps that need to be taken start to address lingering disparities in New Jersey’s criminal and civil justice system, that have for decades caused undue pain and distress in our minority communities.

The facts, the data and the damage are clear – the need for policy overhaul is long overdue. While this legislation will not overnight heal those families and communities scarred by years of biased enforcement and discriminatory penalties against people of color, it is a positive first step, an earnest attempt to right our wrongs centered on racial and social justice.

This legislation, which is up for a vote in both the Senate and Assembly Monday, is the most progressive marijuana decriminalization bill in the nation. We are proud of that, but we will continue to fight for greater reforms going forward. In the meantime, this bill provides a mechanism to better center penalties for small crimes pursuant to marijuana law, and to give these offenses their appropriate weight under our justice system.

In essence, this bill represents a simple, undeniable truth: We cannot begin to move forthrightly toward the new frontier offered by social and economic possibilities of legal adult-use marijuana in our state without first looking back, looking into the mirror, and reckoning honestly with the discriminatory and inequitable policies of our past.

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