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Sen. Scutari: the bill legalizing cannabis has always been about social justice | Opinion

Senator Nicholas Scutari | November 28, 2020 | Star-Ledger |

Marijuana legalization in New Jersey has never been about a money grab but about addressing the unfairness and hypocrisy in our state and national drug laws. In order to address these issues, we need to allow the legal marijuana industry to mature. Lifting cultivation caps and keeping taxes low will help drive down the cost of legal marijuana and will also drive down the costs for entrepreneurs entering the market. As we stress this critical point, let us remember that every element of the legislation drafted to legalize marijuana was considered with the expectation that it would begin to erase the ravages wrought by a decades-long failed “War on Drugs.”

Indeed, we have seen too many New Jerseyans, mostly from our most impoverished neighborhoods, die in that war, or seen their lives and livelihoods wrecked because of it. Without question, that war has pointed at communities of color in our most underserved cities. As the data shows, a Black person in New Jersey is 3.5 times likely to be arrested for a marijuana offense than a white one with similar usage rates. In addition, a recent study conducted by the ACLU concluded that New Jersey ranked 11th in the country for the highest rate of arrests of Black people for marijuana possession in 2018.

This trail of disparate and discriminatory enforcement has been borne out in lives ruined, families torn apart, and neighborhoods wracked by high unemployment and poverty, all part of the rubble from a losing war. That’s why in the course of legalizing cannabis and ending the fruitless policy of “marijuana prohibition,” we must codify an element of restorative social justice to make up for past discrimination and inequality.

Under our bill, at least 70% of revenue created from the sales tax and 100% of the excise fees will be plowed back into urban areas harmed most by the failures of current marijuana policies. In short, we must do all in our power to ensure that these new revenues are dedicated to where they can do the most good to revitalize our communities. Importantly, the bill would also allow the regulatory commission to prioritize applications for at least two licensed marijuana businesses in these designated “impact zones.”

We who have worked for years on the legalization of cannabis have never lost sight of the moral and social justice intent of this law. In addition to creating the organizational and regulatory apparatus to oversee the cannabis industry, to make sure it is run openly and fairly, and to see that law enforcement officers receive needed resources for training in drug recognition protocols, we are also moving boldly on decriminalization efforts.

Under the new bill, possession of up to 6 ounces of marijuana will be decriminalized completely, thereby eliminating the “one strike and you’re out” mentality of the existing statute. Those of us who have been inside a courtroom know all too well how devastating a marijuana arrest, even for possession of a small amount, can be for a young person in an economically depressed community. Even lifting the cultivation caps is partly about social justice, allowing for greater opportunities for people of color, women and veterans.

In addition, the legislation would re-grade possession of 1 ounce or less of psilocybin mushrooms from a third-degree felony to a “disorderly persons” offense, punishable by up to six months in jail. This is a much more reasonable outcome than current law, which is way out of whack and can lead to a prison term of three to five years.

Marijuana legalization might not solve all our social ills, but it is a reform that comes none too soon for Black and brown residents who have borne the brunt of criminalization for even the most minor drug offenses. Through this law, we will achieve a more equitable criminal justice system, and begin to restore lives and neighborhoods damaged by a failed legacy of antiquated, racist and misguided drug laws.


Read the piece here.