Freeholders support bill for criminal reform related to marijuana offenses

ESSEX COUNTY, NJ — On Sept. 23, the Essex County Board of Chosen Freeholders passed a resolution in support of New Jersey State Senate Bill 2535, which would provide criminal and social justice reform on certain marijuana and hashish offenses. Upon passage, the bill would decriminalize possession and distribution of less than 1 pound of marijuana. The bill would also raise awareness regarding expungement relief for citizens who are currently incarcerated, or facing charges, for similar offenses.

The resolution was initiated by Freeholder at large Rufus Johnson and sponsored by acclamation of the board. The bill will not make marijuana legal for recreational purposes, but it will significantly change the protocol for arrest and prosecution of marijuana- and hashish-related offenses. Currently, simple possession of cannabis is punishable by up to six months in jail. Should this bill become law, simple possession violators will receive a written warning for a first offense and face fines of $25 for second and subsequent offenses. Additionally, the bill would eliminate parole revocation based on the decriminalized conduct of testing positive for cannabis.

According to the state judiciary, there have been nearly one million people arrested in New Jersey on marijuana charges in the last 30 years, giving the state one of the highest marijuana arrest rates in the nation. This is especially problematic for minorities, as people of color are arrested and jailed at 3.5 times the rate of their white counterparts. 

“Let me be clear, this bill will not make marijuana legal,” Johnson said. “Violators will receive written warnings or fines rather than jail time for a simple possession or first-time offense.

“Currently, marijuana criminalization disproportionately harms young people, poor people and people of color, and we must ensure these communities are not left behind,” he continued. “Our state has one of the highest marijuana arrest rates in the nation. Although other groups use marijuana at the same levels, unfortunately people of color are targeted and taken to jail 3.5 times the rate of their white counterparts, showing the disparity.”

In addition to addressing marijuana offenses from a criminal standpoint, the bill provides an array of civil protections against discrimination targeting persons with an arrest, charge or conviction involving marijuana and hashish offenses. Also included in the bill is the elimination of an employer’s ability to consider such convictions as a condition of employment, and the prevention of mortgage loan discrimination against individuals regardless of when the arrest or conviction occurred. 

“People who have been convicted of marijuana offenses should have the opportunity to move forward with their lives,” Johnson said. “This bill will raise awareness around expungement relief, and law-abiding citizens will not feel as though they are ‘held hostage’ by an offense that is no longer considered a criminal action.”

“Bill S2535 is a comprehensive bill that addresses many areas of our society’s changing viewpoint around marijuana and its regulation.,” Freeholder President Brendan Gill said. “I support this bill, I was happy to see our board support this bill, and it is my hope it moves through committee and reaches the Senate floor for a vote in a timely fashion.”