Pot half full: Legislature OK’s expungement, delays on medical
New Jersey lawmakers Monday approved a plan to make it easier for people to erase criminal convictions for marijuana, and some other charges, though held off on giving their final approval to a proposed revamping of the state’s medical marijuana program.
The expungement bill was passed 24-11 by the Senate and 50-15, with six votes to abstain, in the Assembly. It is now on the desk of Gov. Phil Murphy, who has expressed support for reforming the expungement law as well as skepticism about making the change while marijuana remains illegal.
Legalization of adult-use recreational marijuana is on hold until at least late 2020, when it is expected to be decided by voters in a proposed amendment to the state constitution.
Sen. Sandra Cunningham, D-Hudson, said it’s right to erase the records because the people involved have paid their debt to society for what they did.
“Are they to spend the rest of their lives paying and repaying and repaying? That is not what this country is supposed to be about,” Cunningham said.
“If you’ve made a mistake, you’ve done something wrong, you picked yourself up, you changed the way that you live, you have a right to ask for a second chance,” she said.
Sen. Bob Singer, R-Ocean, said lives shouldn’t be ruined for small amounts of marijuana but that the legislation – because of ranges currently in state law that determine a drug crime’s degree and, in turn, its prison and financial penalties – covers possession of as much as 5 pounds of pot.
“It’s wrong. Think about what 5 pounds looks like. It’s a wheelbarrow. It’s 7,550 joints,” Singer said.
“Five pounds is not a minor amount. Five pounds is a dealer. And to allow a dealer to walk away with expungement is morally wrong,” he said.
The bill creates an expedited expungement to more quickly clear records for marijuana or hashish possession and distribution by eliminating the waiting period for any past convictions and charges. For future cases, the waiting period would be 18 months for most cases and three years for larger amounts of distribution.
The bill also creates a ‘clean slate’ expungement that lets people with multiple convictions begin to qualify to erase their records, 10 years from the date they completed with prison term, probation or parole.
The State Police say the provision would create a potential backlog of around 1.8 million eligible petitioners whose crimes were committed in 2008 or earlier and a decade-long clean record. It says processing all those applications in one year could cost more than $70 million.
Surprisingly, the expungement bill is reaching Murphy before the medical marijuana expansion, which had been approved by the Senate and Assembly last month though in slightly different forms.
The Assembly passed the medical marijuana expansion 65-5 with six abstentions on May 23 but needed to concur with relatively minor changes added in the Senate on May 30. But Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin said they’re now holding up to review other changes Murphy suggested Friday.
“Simply because I want to foster an atmosphere of cooperation among the front office, the Assembly and the Senate,” said Coughlin, D-Middlesex.
Senate President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, who has been critical of the number of conditional vetoes Murphy has issued, said it’s a possible step toward a more collaborative process. But he notes legislative leaders and Murphy don’t agree on the details of medical marijuana legislation at this time.
“Look, clearly we’re not at the same place right now, but we want to be. That’s why the speaker wisely held up to give the administration and us a chance to see if we can get on the same page,” Sweeney said.
The Legislature took some of the ideas agreed on for regulating adult-use recreational marijuana and applied them to the medical program. Lawmakers were also taken aback by the administration’s move last week to add up to 54 more dispensaries and 24 more growers.
The Assembly’s next voting session is next Thursday, June 20, when it also hopes to pass a proposed state budget in advance of the July start of the 2020 fiscal year.