New Jersey’s Exciting Marijuana Legalization Package Misses Some Social Justice Opportunities

    New Jersey could soon become the first state to legalize cannabis through a legislative vote—rather than a popular vote, as seen most recently with Michigan. A package of bills, approved by a key committee on Monday, would legalize adult use. But critics say that the proposed leglislation fails to live up to its social justice aspirations.

    On November 26, the joint Senate-Assembly budget committee voted in favor of three bills, after a long public comment period. The first bill would expand New Jersey’s existing medical cannabis program; a second would expedite expungements for small-quantity marijuana possession convictions; and a third would legalize recreational marijuana possession and use. (That third bill, the New Jersey Marijuana Legalization Act, has been in the works for nearly 15 years, according to Democratic state Senator Nicholas Scutari, one of its sponsors.)

    Other big wins include the permittance of delivery services and “consumption areas” in dispensaries.

    The legislation’s criminal justice components are still in the process of being strengthened. Senate Bill 3205 would revise New Jersey law to expedite expungement and allow more people with convictions, particularly those with more serious convictions, to access expungement. Expungement was not even in the original version of the bill.

    Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, expressed that she is “grateful to the sponsors of the bill and leadership in the Senate and Assembly for making changes to the bill.”

    Additionally, pending prosecutions of small-scale cannabis possession would be automatically dismissed. But Diana Houenou, a senior policy advisor with the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, urges that people who are already incarcerated must be included too.

    “As New Jersey legalizes cannabis, we cannot forget about the people who are currently entangled in the criminal justice system for cannabis offenses,” Houenou said in her testimony at the hearing.

    The Marijuana Legalization Act “works toward an equity program to promote an inclusive industry,” states ACLU-New Jersey. Applications for licenses cannot be denied due to a past criminal conviction.

    ACLU-New Jersey describes two misses: a lack of justice reinvestment—because the bill “does not contain any plans for reinvestment in communities harmed by the drug war, which would go toward social needs such as education, re-entry services, and job training”—and a continued prohibition on home-growing.

    “They’ve made good progress, but there are still changes that need to be made,” said Houenou.

    Photograph: Sonya Yruel/Drug Policy Alliance

    Corrected 11/29/18: Citing an old version of the Marijuana Legalization Act, the author misstated that a past criminal conviction would render an applicant ineligible to apply for one of the business licenses. 

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