State lawmakers are scheduled to vote Thursday on one of two proposals to decriminalize weed and curb arrests that disproportionately impact Black people.
The state Assembly will convene for a session at 11 a.m. and is scheduled to vote on A1897, a measure that advanced from a committee hearing Monday. It seeks to replace arrests for possessing up to two ounces of weed with a civil fine of $50, and also lessens jail time and fines for possession of larger amounts of pot on a sliding scale.
Lawmakers merged the bill with another, A4269, on Monday, moving it quickly after months of delays. Assembly members first said they would work on a new decriminalization bill in November, not long after the state Legislature abandoned efforts to legalize marijuana and moved instead to put it up for voters to decide on a ballot question in November.
But for more than six months, no legislation came. Then, in early June, amid nationwide civil protests calling for an end to police brutality and mass incarceration, state senators introduced a sweeping decriminalization bill. If passed, it would halt arrests for people possessing up to one pound of weed. It has not been heard in a committee yet.
Police in New Jersey arrest more people for marijuana possession than every state except Texas and New York, according to FBI arrest data. And Black people are arrested at a rate more than three times higher than white people, although people of both races use marijuana at similar rates.
The Assembly voted on a bill to decriminalize 15 grams of marijuana in 2012, but it did not become law. Last year, a lawmaker introduced another measure, but it languished, too.
Either bill would need to pass the Assembly and the Senate — both with Democrat majorities — before moving to Gov. Phil Murphy’s desk for a signature. Neither would make marijuana legal, but they would lead to less people facing jail time or criminal convictions that make it harder to apply for jobs, loans and public housing.
Attempts to decriminalize marijuana faltered in recent years as the state’s top politicians said they did not support the concept and worried it would boost illegal weed sales. But as legalization stalled, Murphy and Senate President Stephen Sweeney, both Democrats, have shifted their stances, saying they are open to decriminalization to stop arrests.