EDITORIAL: Weed bill blazes past joint committee
Changes must be made to rectify injustices in drug enforcement
Same usage rates, but different enforcement. The racial targeting in the policing of cannabis use has resulted in Black New Jerseyans being arrested at a rate three times higher than whites between 2000 and 2013, according to an ACLU-NJ report.
“This report makes it clear: marijuana prohibition has been a failure, and it has created a civil rights crisis in New Jersey,” ACLU-NJ Policy Counsel Dianna Houenou said.
Last month, a Rutgers Eagleton Institute of Politics poll showed more state residents favor than oppose legalizing possession and use of marijuana by a margin of 58 percent to 37 percent.
As though New Jersey was watching the legislative paint dry, the slowed and delayed legalization of cannabis took a shaky first step in the legislative process. On Monday, Nov. 28, after close to 4 hours of debate, the marijuana legalization bill cleared the Senate budget committee 7-4 with two abstentions and the Assembly budget panel 7-2 with one abstention.
While the legislative process will most likely spill in to next year, Senate Bill 2703 is an important first step, but requires much improvement before enactment. Because of disagreements and gaps in the legislation, the bill is not expected to pass any time soon.
As it stands, the bill legalizes the possession of up to 1 ounce of marijuana and allows use at home and in designated areas for adults 21 and older. The bill sets a 12-percent state tax rate on cannabis purchases, allowing for municipalities to impose an additional 2-percent tax. It also expands New Jersey’s medical cannabis program and strikes the use of "marijuana," replacing it with the scientific name of "cannabis," marking an improvement in the language of drug enforcement.
“Marijuana” is based in the racist roots of prohibitionists who appealed to xenophobic and cultural anxieties. In order to frame the drug as being brought by foreign invaders that endanger society, the word, "marijuana" was created. The shift away from the word is an important step in correcting a historical scar in America’s history of drug enforcement.
The same Eagleton poll also revealed that “79 percent believe individuals penalized for possessing a small amount of marijuana should be allowed to clear their records.”
While there is public support for expungement, the legislative commitment has been minimal. Even though the expungement and justice to those convicted of possession have been included in the debate over the bill, they have taken the back seat to discussion of revenue and costs.
The bill and subsequently attached legislation would expand the amount of crimes eligible for expungement to include offenses involving controlled substances and cut down the expungement process wait time to a lengthy five years. For those who have a clean record for 10 years after their last offense, a “clean slate” process will be made available. But, the adversities of those 10 years loom large. In addition, within six months of enactment, the Administrative Office of the Courts is required to create an electronic system to expedite expungements.
The top priority for legalization is not simply the potential for tax revenue. The legalization of cannabis must be predicated on decriminalization, expungement and efforts to repair the damages of discriminatory and disproportionate enforcement of drug laws. The bill signed by Gov. Phil Murphy (D) must include investments in the communities most devastated by such enforcement and immediate expungement of minor marijuana charges.
New Jersey can be a national leader in legalization and decriminalization. But, the only way to lead is to lead justly and with a primary concern for rectifying the injustices of the past. The potential for tax revenue is vast. Whether it be Murphy’s 25-percent or Senate President Stephen Sweeney’s (D) 12-percent state tax rate, there will be a creation of jobs and revenue that must be felt by the lives and communities effected most by cannabis law enforcement.
The Daily Targum's editorials represent the views of the majority of the 150th editorial board. Columns, cartoons and letters do not necessarily reflect the views of the Targum Publishing Company or its staff.