Ruiz, Rice, Cunningham, Scutari drive historic measure
Trenton – In an effort to stem the tide of the “War on Drugs,” the Senate today approved legislation sponsored by Senate President Pro Tempore M. Teresa Ruiz and Senators Ronald Rice, Sandra B. Cunningham and Nicholas Scutari, which would reduce the criminal penalties associated with certain cannabis and hashish-related offenses.
“I am proud to have been a driving force behind what will be the most progressive decriminalization bill in the country,” said Senator Ruiz (D-Essex). “Not only are we decriminalizing possession but also first offenses for low-level distribution, a move which will offer individuals a second chance and ensure they do not become entangled in the system the first time they are caught selling small quantities of marijuana. This is yet another step towards bringing justice and equity to historically impacted communities.
“As we discuss the enabling legislation for legal marijuana I will do everything in my power to ensure we include provisions in the bill that will afford a pathway for underrepresented groups to participate in this economic opportunity and designate funding for programs to provide racial and social reparations for those communities most impacted.”
The bill, S-2535, would decriminalize possession of up to six ounces of cannabis. Under the bill, distribution of up to one ounce would carry a civil penalty for the first offense and would be a fourth-degree crime for any subsequent offenses. All pending cases that fall under the parameters of the bill would be dismissed.
“The voters approved legalizing adult-use marijuana last week, so now it is time we decriminalize it so that folks in Black and Brown communities across the state do not continue to be disproportionately arrested for possession,” said Senator Rice (D-Essex). “Decriminalization is the long-sought remedy for rampant injustice in our state.”
The bill would also downgrade the possession of up to one ounce of psilocybin mushrooms, from a third-degree crime to a disorderly person offense. Psilocybin has been designated a “breakthrough” therapy for mental health issues by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration.
“For the last fifty years, marijuana criminalization has been used as a tool to propel mass incarceration,” said Senator Cunningham (D-Hudson). “It has done immeasurable harm to Black and Brown communities around the country, and today we begin to right the ship here in New Jersey. I look forward to seeing the tangible impact this legislation has on our communities not only as we await legalization but also in the years to follow.”
The bill would create a new form of “virtual” expungement for certain marijuana and hashish offenses. Any arrest, charge, or conviction for certain marijuana or hashish offenses that occurred prior to the bill’s effective date would be deemed not to have occurred, so there would be no need to petition the court for an expungement.
Senator Scutari (D-Union), chief sponsor of the constitutional amendment that legalized adult-use marijuana, said swift approval of the decriminalization legislation is vital. “As we diligently work to set in place the needed infrastructure to support a regulated industry in New Jersey, we have to make sure we deliver a strong and clear message to law enforcement that marijuana will no longer be criminalized as we wait for the regulated market to come online,” he said.
Under the bill, all records relating to unlawful acts of marijuana or hashish possession or distribution that would not be a crime under the bill would be sealed.
The bill includes an array of civil justice protections against discrimination for anyone with an arrest, charge or conviction involving certain marijuana or hashish offenses. The bill would also increase penalties for wrongfully disseminating information related to expunged records.
The bill was released from the Senate by a vote of 29-4.