Plan to penalize pot possession with $50 ticket advances, shakily
State lawmakers advanced plans Monday to make it easier for people to erase drug convictions from their criminal records, though a related proposal to essentially decriminalize the possession of small amounts of marijuana stumbled over its first hurdle.
One Assembly committee advanced what its sponsor calls a marijuana “regrading” bill that seeks to make the possession of less than 2 ounces of marijuana subject only to a civil penalty of $50, rather than a fourth-degree crime or disorderly persons offense.
No testimony was heard on the plan, which would be a significant change in state law, after it had seemingly been shelved for the day just hours earlier. The Senate did not take up the proposal.
There was far more consensus, and less confusion, about the expungement legislation, which has been pending for six months but was formerly tied up the adult-use legalization proposal that’s now on hold until a 2020 referendum.
More changes were made to the proposal. Among them is that people would be able to apply to expunge their records three years after completing their sentence, rather than five.
Akil Roper, vice president of Legal Services of New Jersey, said the bill “represents the first real major reform that I have seen since I started doing (expungement) work 10 years ago.”
“Let me be clear on this point: We all benefit when we enable people to lift themselves up and become gainfully employed and leave behind criminal justice entanglements,” Roper said. “Stronger families, stronger communities and a stronger New Jersey.”
“If we provide for medication assisted treatment, we provide for mental health, we provide for structured sober housing, but we don’t enable individuals to have the means to be gainfully employed, we will never bring them back into civil society,” said former Gov. Jim McGreevey.
“The disparity we all know about, all talk about, it’s not going to change it overnight, but certainly this is a major step forward for society in New Jersey,” said Sen. Dick Codey, D-Essex, a former governor.
Sen. Ron Rice, D-Essex, voted for the bill but said he’s “still angry about the fact that minority people are going to stay in jail because we don’t want to do decriminalization.”
“But I want to be clear on the record that the Legislature, for whatever reason, and I believe some of it has to do with the leadership, is continuing to play games with this marijuana piece,” Rice said.
A more far-reaching bill that strides toward decriminalization in spirit, if not in name, had a far more unusual debut in the Assembly.
Roughly 20 minutes after the Senate health committee advanced the newly revised expungement legislation, Assemblywoman Annette Quijano announced that her latest incarnation of the social-justice aspect of the marijuana effort would not be considered.
“That bill is being held for further internal discussions,” she said to open the Assembly Judiciary Committee meeting.
Quijano, D-Union, said the bill is “regrading” marijuana possession, not decriminalization. She said “there’s a lot of moving parts” to the discussion and that talks with the Administrative Office of the Courts, the Office of the Attorney General and the Senate will be planned.
“I would hope next month,” Quijano said, when pressed by reporters for an estimate for for when the bill might pass.
About 45 minutes after Quijano spoke with reporters, plans change again. It became apparent the bill would be considered by the Assembly Appropriations Committee after all, along with the Assembly’s companion to the expungement bill revised and advanced Monday morning in the Senate.
Both bills were advanced by the Assembly committee about an hour after that – without a word of debate or oral testimony from proponents or opponents, outside of Assemblyman Hal Wirths, R-Sussex, saying erasing convictions for possession of up to 5 pounds of marijuana is “just too much to stomach.”
That doesn’t mean either bill will pass in its current form. At times, bills are advanced through the legislative process as a courtesy with the understanding it could be amended on the Senate or the Assembly floor before a final vote.