New bipartisan legislation approved Monday, 7-0, would lead to the decriminalization of marijuana possession for 15 grams or less.
It was sponsored by Assembly Democrat members Reed Gusciora, Bonnie Watson Coleman, L. Grace Spencer, Gordon M. Johnson and Peter Barnes III and Republican Michael Carroll.
"This bill would put us in line with neighboring states like Connecticut and New York, which recently decriminalized marijuana possession," said Gusciora (D-Mercer/Hunterdon). "The bill recognizes the realities of our current drug laws, which are overly punitive for marijuana and taxing on our criminal justice system."
Under the bill (A-1465), a person who is caught possessing 15 grams or less of marijuana would be subject to a fine rather than facing jail time for the first three offenses.
"Some acts harm society and they warrant the intervention of police, prosecutors and perhaps even incarceration," Carroll told the Star-Ledger. "Other acts warrant at best, a spanking, and these seems to be one of these situations."
Also any one caught possessing drug paraphernalia for the personal use of 15 grams or less of marijuana would be subject to a $100 civil penalty instead of being charged with a criminal violation.
"Possession of a relatively small amount of marijuana can have serious long-term consequences on many aspects of a person's life," said Watson Coleman (D-Mercer/Hunterdon). "Once a person has a criminal record, it can affect their job, schooling, home life, and personal perception. Decriminalizing small possession would ease these burdens while also taking taxpayers off the hook for the cost of prosecuting these crimes."
The bill would also require anyone under 21 who is caught with marijuana and anyone 21 and over who is caught three times, to undergo a drug education program. The person would be responsible for paying any costs associated with his participation in the program, consistent with his ability to pay. If the violation is committed by a person under the age of 18, the person would be referred to the Family Part of the Chancery Division of the Superior Court for an appropriate disposition.
"Fourteen other states have already made the move to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana," said Spencer (D-Essex). "To continue to take such a heavy-handed approach to the situation will only exact further tolls on taxpayers and the otherwise law-abiding citizens who get caught with simple possession."
The true test for the bill though will be receiving full support not only in the Assemby and the Senate (where similar legislation has yet to be debated) but by Gov. Chris Christie, who in the past added extra regulations to a medical marijuana dispensary law to limit who can distribute the drug and what health conditions allow someone to smoke it.
"This is not about turning a blind eye, this is about taking a realistic approach to the situation," said Barnes (D-Middlesex), Chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee. "Marijuana is known to be far less addictive than alcohol or cigarettes and yet we spend untold dollars every year to arrest and prosecute individuals for simple possession."
According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation's annual Uniform Crime Report, marijuana arrests now comprise more than one-half (approximately 52 percent) of all drug arrests reported in the United States, with more than 800,000 people arrested for marijuana-related charges each year, the vast majority of them for simple possession.
The legislation was unanimously approved by the Assembly Judiciary Committee by a vote of 7-0 and now awaits consideration by the full Assembly