NJ Bill to Legalize Marijuana Gets Cautious Reception

A new bill to legalize marijuana in New Jersey is getting mixed reviews, with some questioning its prohibition on home-growing and its treatment of low-level drug offenders.

State Sen. Nick Scutari, a Democrat who chairs the Senate Judiciary Committee, introduced legislation on Monday that would regulate and tax recreational marijuana for those over 21.

Under the terms of his bill — which Scutari is hoping to pass under the next administration because Gov. Chris Christie is an ardent foe — New Jerseyans would be allowed to possess up to 1 ounce of cannabis, 16 ounces of infused solid products or 72 ounces in liquid form. Taxes on the drug would ramp up over five years, starting at 7 percent until gradually reaching 25 percent.

Unlike other states where pot is legal, New Jersey’s law does not include a provision to allow marijuana users to grow the plant in their own homes. In 2014, Scutari introduced legalization, which later died in committee, that would have allowed for up to three homegrown plants.

For Scutari — a municipal prosecutor in Linden who has long advocated for legalization — the bill is the first step to end the disproportionate penalties faced by low-level drug offenders in the state. Estimates show that New Jersey stands to bring in $300 million in additional tax revenue annually if the drug is legalized, a big boon to the cash-strapped budget.

The senator says the bill is a work in progress. But if Scutari’s bill makes it through the Legislature as is, New Jersey would be the first state to legalize marijuana without first decriminalizing it.

Meagan Glaser, New Jersey deputy state director for the nonprofit Drug Policy Alliance, said that while the organization appreciates Scutari’s leadership, his bill tilts too much to the cannabis industry and does not provide enough relief for those who have been convicted of marijuana offenses.

“Marijuana legalization in New Jersey must be fair and equitable,” she said. “Reform should include policies that encourage full participation in the industry by communities disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition and must repair past harms.”

Ideally, she added, Scutari’s bill would have included “policies like automatic and retroactive expungement for people previously convicted of marijuana offenses, investment of the revenue generated into those communities disproportionately impacted by marijuana prohibition, and equal opportunity to access the jobs and wealth generated by the marijuana industry are essential components for a model legalization bill.”

Scutari’s bill would “decriminalize the possession of up to 50 grams of marijuana upon enactment but before implementation, limiting fines to $100, and permit expungement of certain marijuana charges,” according to a news release.

“It’s a starting point for a conversation,” Scutari told Observer NJ. “I think the bill I have proposed strikes the right balance but we are certainly open-minded to necessary changes if there is a need and there is a call for it. It is illegal right now. Expungement is a process. We will certainly look at that as a possibility.”

New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, a coalition of various groups and lobbyists pushing for legalization, praised Scutari for introducing the bill and said it will study its provisions closely. The coalition includes members from the ACLU, the NAACP, and Doctors for Cannabis Regulation.

“This legislation could potentially bring us one step closer to ending a civil rights crisis that has ensnared people of color and left a stain on New Jersey — but we need to make sure this legislation addresses the injustices wrought by marijuana prohibition,” said Dianna Houenou, policy counsel for the New Jersey ACLU. “We thank Senator Scutari for introducing a bill, and we hope it has the potential to right these longstanding wrongs. New Jerseyans deserve a system that allows for as many people as possible to join the legal market, as barriers to entry only serve to strengthen the illegal, unregulated marketplace instead.”

Among New Jersey’s gubernatorial candidates, Democrats Jim Johnson, Ray Lesniak, Phil Murphy and John Wisniewski have all come out in favor of legalization. The leading Republican candidates, Jack Ciattarelli and Kim Guadagno, favor decriminalization as a way to cut down on pot-related arrests, but say legalization is a step too far.

During Thursday’s Republican primary debate, Ciattarelli criticized the quantities outlined in Scutari’s bill, arguing that it allows for too much marijuana to be carried per person.

In a bit of an ironic twist, perhaps the most liberal proposal to legalize marijuana in New Jersey comes from Assemblyman Michael Patrick Carroll (R-Morris). That bill would allow for recreational use among those 19 and older and remove all criminal liability related to marijuana use. Carroll’s bill also would allow for possession of under five pounds of marijuana without penalty. And it would expunge records for past marijuana offenders.

NJ Bill to Legalize Marijuana Gets Cautious Reception