Prominent Democrat to introduce marijuana decriminalization bill in NJ Senate

BY David Cruz, Senior Correspondent |

Sen. Ron Rice doesn’t want to hear marijuana legalization advocates talk about the social justice aspect of their quest; people of color are three times more likely to be in prison for marijuana than white people. So, their argument goes, if you legalize marijuana, all of those people would be out. Rice says that’s a false and insulting argument.

“You’re saying I shouldn’t be in jail and I shouldn’t be in there three times greater than anyone else, but you will not turn me loose unless I sign your legalization bill. And I’m telling you, if I sign that bill to turn people loose, it’s going to have a greater impact on the New Jersey community, particularly urban and minority communities,” said Rice.

Rice’s bill would decriminalize possession of 11 grams or less of marijuana, encourage treatment and clears a way for expungement of records for those serving time on marijuana arrests. To Rice, legalization comes with unforeseen, negative consequences.

“Look at Colorado and the other states,” he added. “It’s a fact now that with all of these little stores running around, people are taking gummies and cupcakes, and all this little stuff like sex oils and stuff, and they’re laying all this stuff around, and the kids are getting hold of it, taking it to schools. Babies are getting sick. There are more young people now going to emergency rooms for marijuana-type of illnesses than there were before legalization.”

Joined by Sens. Bob Singer, a Republican, and Joe Cryan, a Democrat, Rice said decriminalization is something many lawmakers would favor over legalization, pointing out that several towns across the state have already banned its sale, including all of Ocean County, part of which is represented by Singer.

“Will families want to come down to the shore? Will the influx of young people coming to buy marijuana and coming down the shore, [is that] a positive thing for our state, an image we want to see in our state? Somebody said it’ll be good for tourism. Shame on us if that’s how we want to bring tourism. Shame on us if that’s how we want to make money,” said Singer.

Referring to admittedly anecdotal evidence about the negative repercussions of legalization, Rice and others say that the states where marijuana is legal have seen arrests and crime go up. And, communities of color have seen more burden than benefits.

“Legalization actually exacerbates the prison population problem,” added Will Jones, of the New Jersey chapter of Responsible Approaches to Marijuana Policy. “In the state of Colorado, when they legalized, for white youth, because it’s still illegal under the age of 21, for white youth, arrests went down 8 percent. For African-Americans youth, arrests went up 58 percent. For Latinos, it went up 35 percent.”

Gov. Phil Murphy is depending on at least $300 million in marijuana tax revenue to help fund his agenda and the legalization bill has the support of the Senate president. Thursday, both said they won’t have any comment until they see Rice’s bill, which Rice says he expects to see posted.