A package of legislation that legalizes recreational marijuana for adults in New Jersey is moving forward.

As part of the package, the state Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee and the Assembly Appropriations Committee approved a measure that would expand opportunities for non-violent offenders convicted of possessing small quantities of pot to expunge their criminal records.

The legislation, sponsored by State Sen. Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson) calls for the Administrative Office of the Courts to devise an online system that would allow people convicted of low-level marijuana possession to have their records wiped clean. The office would have six months from the bill's passage to come up with its plan.

The measure stipulates these expungements are to be done at no cost, and further calls for a public relations campaign to be mounted advising people of the new expungement opportunity.

Also, once the expungement bill is passed by the full legislature, all pending low-level possession cases would be dismissed, and people currently jailed for marijuana possession of an ounce or less would be immediately released.

The measure would also establish a “clean slate” expungement, which would allow someone convicted of multiple crimes or disorderly persons offenses to apply for expungement, as long as that person has not committed other crimes within the past 10 years, and that person was paying off all outstanding fines and fees.

In addition, the bill would delete a provision in current New Jersey law that barred expungement of any controlled dangerous substance where the conviction is the third of fourth degree.

Governor Phil. Murphy said having an expungement provision included in the marijuana legislative process is very important.

“Addressing the social injustices, the inequities, the disparities in our society is probably in many respects job No. 1 specific to anything associated with legalization," he said.

He said in the past, when it came to marijuana possession arrests, the system hasn’t always been fair.

“We have the widest white-non-white gap of persons incarcerated in America, and it’s not the only reason but the biggest contributing reason is low-end drug possession crimes, so solving that riddle is paramount to us -- certainly as it relates to this legislation, but as a broader reality," Murphy said.

Murphy stressed marijuana use in society is a reality, and so “the question is do we have the will and the courage to solve the social inequities, the social injustice inequities of the past?”

He said giving people previously convicted of possessing small amounts of marijuana a way to clean their records is the right thing to do.

“I guess it would send a positive signal to the rest of the nation," he said. "I’d be proud of that, but frankly that’s not why we’re doing it. We’re doing it to solve the inequities that exist within our state.”

The ACLU of New Jersey recently reported blacks are 2.8 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than whites in the Garden State, even though the rate of marijuana usage is basically the same for blacks and whites.

According to the FBI’s Uniform Crime Reporting program, 32,263 people were arrest for marijuana possession in New Jersey in 2016.

You can contact reporter David Matthau at David.Matthau@townsquaremedia.com

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