State Senate and Assembly committees approve Marijuana Legalization Act

Photo by Chris Sykes
From left, Sandra King of the ‘Due Process’ TV show, attorney Raymond Brown, state Sen. Ron Rice, state Sen. Nia Gill, East Orange Mayor Ted Green, NJ ACLU member Dianna Houenou and Oranges-Maplewood NAACP President Tom Puryear on Saturday, Oct. 27, during the local civil rights group’s Cannabis Education Forum at Bloomfield College. The Periodic Table of elements hangs on the wall behind them.

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,” said Gill on Saturday, Oct. 27, at the Bloomfield College 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.”

Green said he favors legalization, despite the reservations Rice expressed and the legislative difficulties Gill said need to be resolved before they can put it to a vote by state officials. He also agreed with DeLuca that legalization is inevitable because of all the economic and social justice reasons discussed at the forum on Saturday, Oct. 27. But he added his own caveat when it comes to East Orange.

“All of it has to make sense,” said Green on Saturday, Oct. 27. “Whatever bill goes into place, it has to make sense to my community. It has to make sense to the 65,000 residents that I represent each and every day. It has to make sense, in a way that we don’t want other things to fail, even though there’s potentially money coming in. It has to make sense across the board for us to endorse 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 former Irvington NAACP President Kathleen Witcher on Thursday, Nov. 1, Rice “has been saying the same things since they first proposed having giveaways of needles. So Sen. Rice has been on that case ever since then and it has to be more than 35 years.”

Former Irvington NAACP President Merrick Harris agreed with Witcher’s assessment. He attended Rice’s Community Meeting on Marijuana Legalization at Solid Rock Baptist Church on Chancellor Avenue on Wednesday, Oct. 3, but prior to that, went on the record opposing marijuana legalization in New Jersey.

“I believe marijuana should not be legalized especially in our community. We’ve got a lot of things going on with drug use,” said Harris on Sunday, Sept. 30. “I think legalizing marijuana might contribute to a drug issue in our state. We’ll see. We may see auto accidents going up and different things like that. That’s not going to help us. That’s not going to help the community.”

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,” said Holley on Monday, 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.”

“Sen. Ron Rice was there and he did a great presentation on what marijuana legalization might mean for cities and communities like Orange,” said Orange North Ward Councilwoman Tency Eason on Monday, Oct. 22. “He had a lot of information and handouts. It was very informative. The senator shared a lot of information. We learned a lot. The problem was people didn’t come out to the meeting to get the information.”

Eason hosted her own Marijuana Legalization Community Meeting at St. Matthew AME Church on Oakwood Avenue on Wednesday, Oct. 10.

Eason agreed with Gill, saying, “Legalizing marijuana is a big issue. That’s why it’s taking so long to do and the Legislature didn’t vote on anything by their Oct. 29 deadline.

“I’m against marijuana legalization because, if you ever saw a kid coming to school high and realize that he can’t function, then you would be against it. There’s a lot more to it than just making it OK for recreational use.”

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 Saturday, Oct. 27.