NJ committees approve pot legalization

ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — On Monday, Nov. 26, the New Jersey Senate and Assembly majorities voted to move ahead with the Marijuana Legalization Act legislation, co-sponsored by Sen. Nicholas Scutari and state Senate President Stephen Sweeney, that would make marijuana use legal for adults age 21 and older.

Scutari represents the 22nd Legislative District, which includes parts of Middlesex, Somerset and Union counties, and Sweeney represents the 3rd Legislative District, which includes parts of Cumberland, Gloucester and Salem counties.

The Marijuana Legalization Act proposes to legalize possession and personal use of marijuana for persons age 21 and older, and create a Division of Marijuana Enforcement and licensing structure. According to published reports, the state Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee and the Assembly Appropriation Committee voted to advance the legislation to a full vote by the entire state Legislature, after a five-hour debate Monday, Nov. 26.

The Senate Budget and Appropriations Committee voted 7-4 in favor of the Marijuana Legalization Act, while the Assembly Appropriations Committee voted 7-3 to advance the bill. The bill also requires Gov. Phil Murphy’s signature to become law, but the entire state Legislature must first vote on it.

Despite the Senate and Assembly committee votes, it’s still not clear when the full Legislature vote on the Marijuana Legalization Act will take place. Most, but not all, Democrats on the Assembly and Senate Budget and Appropriations committees supported the legislation.

State Sen. Nia Gill, who represents the 34th Legislative District, which includes Orange, East Orange, Montclair and Clifton in Passaic County, is the vice chairwoman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and has been practicing law for 35 years. She also recently participated in the Oranges-Maplewood NAACP’s Cannabis Education Forum at Bloomfield College on Saturday, Oct. 27, along with East Orange Mayor Ted Green, Maplewood Mayor Victor DeLuca, state Sen. Ron Rice and Dianna Houenou of the New Jersey American Civil Liberties Union.

“I approach this in a kind of detached way, in that you examine what people want, what is supposed to be in the bill, and then you look at how the bill is written and analyze it, to determine if what is written in the bill actually provides what people think or said they want,” Gill said at the Oct. 27 forum. “Because, in this process, the devil is in the details and because it is a process that carries some amount of passion, we have to have that point, I think, for the people that I represent and the rest of the state. So we have to look at the legislation. Does it reflect what people have said they are going to do, they are going to give you or that they are going to accomplish?”

Gill said she favors marijuana legalization, but only if it’s done properly.

“I am pro-marijuana, but the legislation must be correct, in terms of what it promises,” she said. “This is because, since we have none, we will be one of the few states in the country who will do a wide range of recreational marijuana without the voice of the people, in the sense that every place else had a referendum that is a constitutional referendum. So, as legislators, we have a particularly important role, because the people themselves have never voted for this. So you have a more complex who’s for, who’s against and then how do we actually structure this.”

Rice, a former police officer with the Newark Police Department, represents the 28th Legislative District, which includes Newark, Irvington, Bloomfield, Glen Ridge and Nutley. He is opposed to the Marijuana Legalization Act and said he’s not prepared to support legalization because he believes it will encourage crime and intoxicated driving. He said he supports decriminalization instead.

Rice said the whole push for legalization in New Jersey is about “money,” not social justice, and he used Colorado’s recent legalization to support his opposition here in the Garden State. He said that since marijuana has been legalized in Colorado, drug use and crime have increased there, particularly in the black community, and he called the social justice argument “a slap in the face” to black citizens.

According to South Orange Village President Sheena Collum, even just the discussion is a win for the state, as it requires data collection and asking some hard questions.

“I’ve never heard such a great debate take place with very passionate and fact-based arguments being made on both sides and in fact, the majority of speakers identified areas for ‘improvements’ to the proposed bill,” Collum wrote in a Nov. 26 social media post. “Stakeholders spoke to social justice, economics and taxation, traffic enforcement and law enforcement training, technology, impacts on youth, public health, zoning, education, the black market, etc.

“What you need to know and what this means for us, the South Orange community, is this bill automatically ‘opts in’ towns with no limits on dispensaries. I do have a problem with this as it undercuts local zoning,” she continued. “I will provide more information and analysis … but we, meaning our community, will need to decide within a set timeline on whether or not to ‘opt out’ if this passes the full Senate and Assembly — which I believe Governor Murphy will sign if it does. To break it down in simple terms: You can support the bill and support recreational sales in our town; you can support the bill and be opposed to recreational sales in our town; you can oppose the bill and by extension oppose recreational sales in our town; or you can also independently mix and match a variety of your opinions and not fall into any of the categories above.”

Assemblyman Jamel Holley of Roselle, who represents the 20th Legislative District, which includes Union, Elizabeth, Hillside and Roselle, works as the director of the Department of Public Works in Irvington and said he doesn’t need to do any research to understand that legalizing marijuana is the right thing to do.

“I don’t need another study to tell me. I don’t need another FBI data to report. I’ve lived it,” Holley said on Nov. 26. “It’s been hard, but I got lucky. So I’m saying to all my colleagues who are ‘no’ and to all my colleagues who are on the fence and ‘thank you’ to all my colleagues who are riding this out with us, that it’s about more than public policy. It’s about people who look like me every single day, who don’t have an opportunity to succeed. You’re looking at someone who got lucky. And if you are for medical marijuana, you must be for legalization of marijuana. You can’t have one or the other, because they’re both the same.”

Oranges-Maplewood NAACP President Tom Puryear said, based on what he heard at the Bloomfield College forum, delaying the vote was the right thing to do. His unit represents 11 municipalities, including Orange, East Orange, West Orange, South Orange, Maplewood, Millburn, Livingston, Verona, Belleville, Butler and Nutley.

“It would appear that there is a lot of work that needs to be done on the legislation itself, in order to make it positive, so I’m optimistic,” Puryear said Oct. 27.