N.J. Takes Up Bill To Decriminalize Small-Scale Adult Use of Marijuana

Michael Booth, New Jersey Law Journal

Re-published by New Jersey Drug Crime Lawyer, Jeffrey Hark

Legislation introduced in New Jersey Monday would legalize possession, cultivation and sale of small amounts of marijuana—if the bill isn’t snuffed out by the governor’s promised veto.

The measure’s sponsor says New Jersey should join Colorado and Washington State in ceasing to prosecute and starting to regulate and tax minor marijuana use.

“It’s time to update our archaic drug laws,” Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Nicholas Scutari, D-Union, said at a press conference Monday announcing the bill’s introduction.

Scutari, who is the municipal prosecutor for the city of Linden, said the decades-long battle to eradicate marijuana use has “failed miserably.”

“We have seen billions of dollars spent on enforcement, our streets become increasingly dangerous and the ability of countless people to get a job, go to college or buy a home hindered by criminal records from petty crimes,” he said.

The proposed bill would allow adults aged 21 and over to possess an ounce or less of marijuana and to cultivate up to six plants in an enclosed, locked space for personal use and not for sale.

Sale of marijuana would be regulated the same way the state regulates liquor sales. The Division of Alcoholic Beverage Control would be renamed the Division of Alcoholic Beverage and Marijuana Control with authority to issue retail-sales licenses.

Local governments would be allowed to ban by ordinance marijuana retail sales within their borders.

Marijuana sale would be taxed at 7 percent, which Scutari said could reap tens of millions of dollars per year for the state. His bill would dedicate 70 percent of those tax revenues to the Transportation Trust Fund, in view of the state’s failure to enact a gas tax hike.

The rest would be dedicated 20 percent to drug education programs and 10 percent to women’s health programs, each of which have suffered cuts.

All of this may go up in smoke if Gov. Chris Christie holds to his often-stated promise to veto any legalization bill that reaches his desk.

The governor’s spokesman on Monday referred to a statement Christie made at a March 20 town hall meeting in Flemington.

Here’s what I will not do: I will not decriminalize marijuana. I will not permit recreational use, and I will not legalize marijuana, because I think that is the wrong message to send to the children in this state and to young adults,” Christie said at the time. “I don’t believe that it’s appropriate to be done, and I’ve made that very clear from when I ran in 2009 and I ran again in 2013.”

Now if the majority of people in this state want that then they’ve got to elect a different governor, and maybe that governor will do it.”

Scutari downplayed the seriousness of Christie’s opposition. “He’s not going to be the governor forever,” Scutari said. “But the governor is also a man of facts.” Once Christie sees the revenue that a marijuana sales tax could generate, “I think he’ll be open-minded.”

Scutari said a number of issues have yet to be addressed, such as whether out-of-staters could buy marijuana here; how many retail licenses should be issued; and whether people who previously have been convicted of possession of a small amount of marijuana could have those convictions expunged. “All of this will be part of the discussion,” he said.

Asked whether the state would set the price on an ounce of marijuana, Scutari said, “The market will determine that figure.”

Scutari’s bill differs from A-2842, introduced on March 10 by Assemblymen Reed Gusciora, D-Mercer, and Michael Patrick Carroll, R-Morris, which would call for a referendum whether possession of an ounce or less of marijuana should be decriminalized.

“We’re lawmakers. We should do our jobs,” Scutari said in rejecting the referendum path.

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