TRENTON — A group of senators skeptical of legalizing, regulating and taxing marijuana for recreational use in New Jersey introduced a plan to instead end the criminal penalties for possessing small amounts of the drug.

The legislation would establish civil fines for possession of 10 grams or less of marijuana of $150 for a first offense, $200 for a second offense and $500 for subsequent offenses. It also eliminates all penalties for being under the influence of marijuana.

Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, said his bill (S1926) has the backing of four other Democratic senators, plus Shore Republican Bob Singer.

Bishop Jethro James, pastor of Newark’s Paradise Baptist Church, said that decriminalization would be better than regulating and taxing marijuana sales.

“That is social justice. Social injustice is trying to legalize marijuana in this state,” James said.

Amol Sinha, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, disagrees, saying the black market would thrive and minorities would still bear the brunt of disproportionate enforcement.

“Decriminalization is not a half-step towards legalization. It actually might perpetuate some of the harms that we’ve already seen of prohibition,” Sinha said.

Sen. Joseph Cryan, D-Union, said discussions about taxing marijuana and ending racial disparities in how marijuana laws are enforced should be kept separated.

“The leverage of social justice should be by itself as opposed to a debate: You have to do the money and social justice, or you can’t have either,” Cryan said.

Rice says he wants social justice, not lining the pockets of marijuana investors.

“They’re being told the only way we’re going to turn black folk loose – that’s what they’re telling them, OK? – is that you do legalization. So we’re going to hold you hostage like we did on the plantation until you do what we tell you to do,” Rice said. “This is plantation. That’s why I told you before, it’s Jim Crow.”

Scott Rudder, president of the New Jersey Cannabusiness Association, said Rice’s measure is well-intended but doesn’t deliver the benefits of full legalization.

“Decriminalization does have its role here, and I think it’s a very important part of the process. But in and of itself, it is not a solution,” Rudder said. “In and of itself, it will push people to deal with drug dealers. It would exacerbate a problem that already exists.”

Rice and Singer said they don’t want there to be a legal marijuana industry in the state.

Singer, R-Ocean, said an influx of young people coming to New Jersey to buy legal marijuana would discourage families from visiting the Shore and questioned if that’s the image the state wants.

“Somebody said it would be good for tourism. Shame on us if that’s how we want to bring tourism in. Shame on us if that’s how we want to make money,” Singer said.

Currently, possession of 50 grams or less of marijuana is a disorderly persons offense, which carries a potential penalty of up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine.

Under the legislation, people with criminal records for possession of small amounts of marijuana would be eligible to immediately file to have those convictions expunged.

Municipalities would have to forward $50 from each penalty to the state but could keep the rest.

Gov. Phil Murphy supports legalization and said he’d like the law enacted by late April, within his first hundred days in office.

An Assembly committee plans to take testimony on the issue March 5.

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