A bill that would decriminalize the possession of 15 grams or less of marijuana was approved by the Assembly Judiciary Committee yesterday.

The bi-partisan legislation is sponsored on the Democratic side by Assembly members Reed Gusciora, Bonnie Watson Coleman, Grace Spencer and Peter Barnes. Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll is the Republican sponsor.

Under the bill, a person who is caught possessing 15 grams or less of marijuana would be subject to a $150 fine for a first violation, a $200 fine for a second violation, and a $500 fine for a third or subsequent violation. A person who is caught possessing drug paraphernalia for the personal use of 15 grams or less of marijuana would no longer have committed a criminal violation but would be subject to a $100 civil penalty.

"This bill would put us in line with neighboring states like Connecticut and New York, which recently decriminalized marijuana possession," says Gusciora. "The bill recognizes the realities of our current drug laws, which are overly punitive for marijuana and taxing on our criminal justice system."

The bill would also require anyone under 21 who is caught with marijuana and anyone 21 and over who is caught three times, to undergo a drug education program. The person would be responsible for paying any costs associated with his participation in the program, consistent with his ability to pay. If the violation is committed by a person under the age of 18, the person would be referred to the Family Part of the Chancery Division of the Superior Court for an appropriate disposition.

Opponents of the measure like Bruce Hummer with the New Jersey prevention Network say pot is addictive and decriminalizing it even in small amounts sends the message to kids that marijuana use is safe. The Christie Administration is not commenting on the bill.

"Possession of a relatively small amount of marijuana can have serious long-term consequences on many aspects of a person's life," says Watson Coleman. "Once a person has a criminal record, it can affect their job, schooling, home life, and personal perception. Decriminalizing small possession would ease these burdens while also taking taxpayers off the hook for the cost of prosecuting these crimes."

Watson Coleman says 15 grams (roughly half an ounce) of marijuana is the equivalent of about 30 joints.

The bill would establish that it is no longer a disorderly persons offense to be under the influence of marijuana or to fail to voluntarily deliver 15 grams or less of marijuana to the nearest law enforcement officer. This bill would also eliminate the requirement that a person who operates a motor vehicle while in possession of 15 grams or less of marijuana must pay a $50 fine and forfeit the right to operate a motor vehicle for a period of two years.

14 other states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. Alaska, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Nevada and Oregon have decriminalized possession of one ounce (about 28 grams) of marijuana or less. Connecticut and North Carolina have decriminalized one half ounce or less. Minnesota has decriminalized 42.5 grams or less; Mississippi: 30 grams or less; New York: 25 grams or less; and Ohio: 100 grams or less.

The legislation was unanimously approved by the Assembly Judiciary Committee by a vote of 7-0 and now awaits consideration by the full Assembly.