POLITICS & GOVERNMENT

Medical marijuana, expungement bills pass through Assembly and Senate committees

When Senate President Steve Sweeney announced last week that voters would have to decide the marijuana question, it was a victory for the legislature’s sharpest critic of legalization, Sen. Ron Rice.

“I don’t call it a victory. I want to thank the Legislature and the majority who understood that to pass legalization of recreational marijuana would do more harm for minorities and minority communities than good,” Rice said.

While that issue is slated to go on the 2020 ballot, two other issues remain: medical marijuana expansion and expungement of criminal records.

Senate and Assembly committees approved legislation Monday that addresses both. The medical marijuana bill doubles the number of dispensaries in the state from six to 12 and makes it easier for patients to access medical cannabis.

Two other bills deal with the social justice component.

One makes it easier to expunge a criminal conviction for low-level possession. The other says if you’re caught with less than 2 ounces of pot, you get a small fine, like a traffic ticket. That is essentially decriminalization.

It was hard to keep track of the bills Monday.

Word kept going round that they were being held or being amended. Even cannabis industry lobbyist Bill Caruso had trouble keeping up with the script.

“It’s very confusing. I think there are a lot of people that were expecting a vote in March on a broad race bill package that dealt with medical, that dealt with a lot of the answers related to criminal and social justice issues and began down a path towards legalization. I mean, there’s a lot of people who were in favor of that who are certainly scratching their heads today,” Caruso said.

“The Assembly, I understand, today is trying to work up a decriminalization bill. I read the bill. I don’t think it’s perfect, but I think it’s a step in the right direction,” Rice said.

Advocates for legalization, like Roseanne Scotti, say the expungement piece is important.

“They have a couple expungement bills. One bill that they’re putting in would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana, since legalization is now off the table for the moment. And that bill would also expunge old possession offences,” Scotti said. “So there are tens, hundreds of thousands of people with these offenses. We arrest about 30,000 people a year just for possession. So if this bill is passed, that will put an end to that injustice; no more 30,000 getting arrested for marijuana possession. And the people who have been arrested will be able to clear their records and move on with their lives.”

Assembly Speaker Craig Coughlin endorsed the effort Monday as the best the legislative leadership can come up with.

But is this plan B?

“It’s someone’s plan B. I’m not sure if it’s the plan B. It may be plan B, there may be a C, there may be a D, we may go back to A,” said Caruso.

Caruso says he thinks there is still a remote possibility full marijuana legalization could get passed in June or July as part of some Grand Bargain around the enacting of the next state budget.