N.J. to consider marijuana decriminalization bill

Posted: May 18, 2012

TRENTON — An Assembly panel is set to hear a bill Monday that would decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, making the offense similar to a parking violation.

The bill, which has 18 sponsors, including three Republicans, would punish anyone caught with a half-ounce or less of marijuana with fines instead of arrest. Currently, marijuana possession is a disorderly-persons offense — the equivalent of a misdemeanor — and is punishable by up to six months in jail, $1,000 in fines, and a criminal record that cannot be expunged for five years.

Gov. Christie, a Republican, has made drug treatment for nonviolent offenders one of his priorities this year. Some GOP lawmakers say this is another way to keep low-level offenders out of prison, thereby saving the state money.

“The governor has had policy shifts in terms of how we treat drug offenders,” said Assemblywoman Caroline Casagrande (R., Monmouth). “We are sick and tired of paying for criminal prosecutions for people with a small amount of marijuana. ... It’s time to step back and take a look at alternatives and really micro-targeting our resources where they need to be, because they are very limited.”

Christie spokesman Michael Drewniak said that he had not seen the bill but that he did not think Christie, a former federal prosecutor, would sign it.

“It’s a slippery slope,” he said. “We do have a medical marijuana program that is headed toward full implementation.”

Supporters of the bill say Christie delayed implementation of medical marijuana, so they expect it would take time to push him further. Yet they say they are hopeful that the money-saving argument will eventually persuade him, outweighing criticism he might receive from the national Republican Party, where his star continues to rise.

“The governor has moved forward with medical marijuana; he has supported treatment instead of incarceration,” said Roseanne Scotti, state director of the New Jersey Drug Policy Alliance. “We have some time to convince him that this is something that will do a lot of good for the state.”

Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D., Union), who introduced similar legislation in the Senate on Thursday, laughed when asked whether he thought Christie would sign the bill.

“I doubt it, but we’ll see,” he said. “Hopefully, before my career ends, we’ll get it done.”

Advocates of same-sex marriage thought they, too, might sway the governor; they were wrong. Christie, mentioned as a contender for the GOP’s vice presidential candidacy, vetoed a bill that would have legalized same-sex marriage a day after it passed the Assembly in February.

The marijuana bill was introduced in the Assembly in January but scheduled just this week for a Judiciary Committee hearing. Scutari, who chairs the committee, said he would wait until after the budget deadline of June 30 to hold a hearing on his bill, which would decriminalize possession of up to 50 grams of marijuana, the amount required for a felony charge.

Democrats control both chambers in Trenton.

Fourteen states have decriminalized marijuana possession of quantities ranging from a half-ounce to 3.5 ounces. Oregon was the first state to do so, in 1977, said Keith Stroup, legal council and founder of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws.

Pennsylvania has not decriminalized marijuana possession, but Philadelphia allows some defendants caught with up to 30 grams (just over an ounce) to enter an educational program that permits them to plead guilty to a summary offense and pay a fine. Defendants’ records are expunged upon completion of the program.

The Assembly bill would fine adults 21 or older $150 for a first violation and $200 for a second. Three or more offenses would result in a $500 fine and referral to a state drug-education program.

Anyone under 21 arrested with marijuana would be referred to the state’s drug-education program. Possession of drug paraphernalia also would be penalized with a $100 fine rather than a criminal charge.

Contact Joelle Farrell at 856-779-3237 or jfarrell@phillynews.com or on Twitter at @joellefarrell.

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