Now that legal marijuana is on hold in New Jersey, state leaders are privately discussing a plan to decriminalize marijuana in the meantime and put an end to arrests for pot possession, NJ Advance Media has learned.
Three sources familiar with the issue said lawmakers are in talks about whether to move forward with a bill that would treat pot possession like a traffic violation in the Garden State — meaning you’d get a fine instead of jail time.
The sources spoke on the condition on anonymity because they are not authorized to speak publicly about the matter.
A bill that includes provisions for decriminalization was approved by a state Assembly committee in May. But state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said at the time he was still skeptical about decriminalizing the drug without legalizing it, and the measure languished.
Talks about decriminalization, however, have been revived after Sweeney and other top lawmakers announced last week they were dropping their latest push for lawmakers to pass a bill that would legalize weed in the state and instead move forward with a plan to ask voters to decide in referendum next November.
Sources stressed Monday that discussions about decriminalization are tentative. One legislative source said Monday he had “no idea” if decriminalization would pass.
“This one’s really been a moving target,” the source said.
Many supporters of legal marijuana warn that thousands of people will continue to be jailed for months until voters cast their ballots.
Police in New Jersey arrest more people for marijuana possession than every state except Texas and New York, according to FBI arrest data. And black people are arrested at a rate three times higher than white people, although people of both races use marijuana at similar rates.
Gov. Phil Murphy made legalizing weed in New Jersey a major campaign promise and has long said he prefers lawmakers to pass a bill instead of leaving it up to voters.
Murphy, a Democrat, was initially wary of decriminalizing weed in the meantime, worrying it may boost the black market with no legal system in place.
But his stance began to shift in July, as he spoke of the high rates of arrest that disproportionately impact people of color.
“I’m not gonna say hell no to anything right now,” Murphy said in July. “We’ve got to do something I’m not a fan of it historically because we leave the business in the hands of the wrong people.”
Sweeney, the state Senate president, expressed similar concerns to Murphy, saying it wouldn’t deter the black market. But he told NJ Advance Media last month he has told other lawmakers he’s “willing to look at it.”
Sweeney did not immediately return a message seeking comment Monday.
For decriminalization to become legal, both the state Senate and Assembly would have to pass a bill and Murphy would have to sign it into law.
With lawmakers turning to a voter referendum on legalizing pot, Murphy said last week he would refocus his attention on expunging the records of people arrested for marijuana possession in New Jersey. But he did not provide details.
So far, attempts to pass expungement reform have stalled. In September, the state Senate did not vote on the governor’s changes to its expungement legislation and instead introduced a new bill.
Sweeney said the bill would move straight to the floor the next time the state Senate convenes. In keeping with Murphy’s recommendations, it would establish “clean slate” expungement, rendering certain convictions inaccessible after a 10-year period. It also would overhaul the application process to make all expungements more accessible.
Earlier on Monday afternoon, a group of about 50 people led by Ed Forchion, also known as NJ Weedman, appeared at the Statehouse in Trenton, chanting for legalization and the ability to grow weed at home. They held signs that called for “Expungements for all, home grow for all.”
Forchion said he did not like the legalization bill, as it would overlook the existing illegal industry, in which he operates, in favor of big corporations. And the expungement bill, he said, did not go far enough in its scope to clear convictions for larger amounts of marijuana possession or dealing.
“Why not legalize us? Why not legalize the existing market?" he said. “Even if you call it decrim, I don’t care.”