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Weed in New Jersey: New Bills Focus on Legalization, Social Justice

In the Garden State, weed will soon be legal — and with it could come a wave of record expungement for people convicted in the past

A man wears a hat with a marijuana depiction as a large group gathered near the New Jersey Statehouse to show their support for legalizing marijuana, in Trenton, N.J. The event was led by Ed Forchion, a pro-marijuana activist known as NJ Weedman. He renewed his calls for lawmakers to legalize the drug, saying it should be treated like alcoholRethinking Pot NJ, Trenton, USA

Protesters outside the statehouse in Trenton, New Jersey. Phil Murphy, who was elected governor in 2017, has made marijuana legalization a priority for the state.

Mel Evans/AP/REX/Shutterstock

States have been ending cannabis prohibition since 2012, but it’s only recently that states are tackling social justice in the same policy.

More states and municipalities, like California, are passing legislation to expunge criminal records for those with prior cannabis possession convictions, reversing the reality those individuals face when applying for employment, social benefits, even housing.

Now, legislators in New Jersey — which could pass a recreational bill as early as this fall — have made record expungement for cannabis-related crimes a focus of the policy, which has been introduced, formatted, and revised into several different bills.

As the current New Jersey law states various charges — including disorderly persons offenses, ordinance violations and juvenile delinquency charges — are eligible for expungement. Yet the expungement process is a costly one, stresses Dianna Houenou, Policy Counsel for the ACLU of New Jersey.

“There’s an application process and so depending on the offense that you’re trying to expunge, there might be a various waiting period before you can actually apply,” Houenou tells Rolling Stone. “It costs around $200 total, including filing fees and certified copies of everything that you have to sent to multiple parties. [That’s] a lot of money to ask people and that’s only if you’re doing it by yourself. If you hire an attorney, as is recommended because it’s a complicated process, those costs can skyrocket.”

“People have this idea that the government can press a button and expunge all these past convictions,” says one expert.

Just before the end of his second term, in January 2018, Governor Chris Christie passed three expungement-related bills. Two bills shortened the wait period to apply for expungement to six years for adults and three years for minors, while the other strengthened restrictions on employers to ask about the criminal background of applicants. This wasn’t exactly Christie flip-flopping to a pro-cannabis position — he saw it more as an example of his bipartisan legacy, according to NorthJersey.com.

Governor Phil Murphy, on the other hand, the state’s new gubernatorial head, ran a pro-legalization platform. He campaigned on the promise he would legalize recreational cannabis within his first 100 days of office. Although this promise failed to materialize, he has been able to expand the state’s medical marijuana program by adding more qualifying condition, including anxiety, migraines and Tourette’s syndrome.

Murphy clearly wants to go further, but 2018 might not be the year for recreational pot. Previously, NJ.com reported that Murphy intended to include $60 million in revenue (which included revenue from recreational legalization) of a state budget proposal for the upcoming fiscal year, due on June 30 — and many advocates hoped this revenue would go towards a program to expunge records. However, that plan has since changed following the Democratic-controlled Senate passing their own $36.5 billion budget, NJ.com reports — a budget Murphy said he would veto — and thus, recreational pot has not yet been passed.

Expungement is particularly urgent for the Garden State because of racial disparity in cannabis arrests.

But don’t lose hope. Since there is no longer a rush to pass legislation before a budget deadline, the legislature has many more months to seed through the details of what recreational pot in the state would look like, particularly with an expungement program.

A recent bill, S-2702 — which was introduced to the state Senate by Senator Nicholas Scutari on June 7th, and would legalize marijuana for all adults over 21 — includes a provision about expungement, though it would still require an application. Advocates want this expungement to be automatic, where the state takes on the process of expunging records rather than the person charged. However Kate Bell, legislative council for the Marijuana Policy Project, says that the phrase “automatic” is very misleading.

“People have this idea that the government can still press a button and magically expunge all these past convictions, but that’s not necessarily correct,” Bell says.

Similar bills have been introduced by different legislators, such as A-3581 by Assemblyman Reed Gusciora and A-3620 by Aseemblywoman Annette Quijano. A-3581 legalizes possession, personal use, cultivation, manufacture and distribution for adult recreational use as well as establishing a Division of Marijuana Enforcement and licensing structure, which includes section 24 that allows those convicted of cannabis possession to apply for record expungement. A-3620 goes more into depth on cannabis expungement and outlines a Expungement Coordinator Program.

On average in New Jersey, a black person is three times as likely to be arrested than a white person.

Expungement is particularly urgent for the Garden State because of racial disparity in cannabis arrests. The state is making more arrests for cannabis than ever before. According to a 2017 report by the ACLU, police arrest someone in New Jersey for a cannabis-related charge every 22 minutes. On average, in New Jersey, a black person is three times as likely to be arrested than a white person. However, in some parts of the state, the number is much higher. For instance, in Point Pleasant Beach, on the Jersey Shore, black people were nearly 32 times as likely to be arrested.

Thus far, individual states and municipalities have had to rely on their own legislatures to tackle record expungement to reverse the racial inequalities perpetuated by the War on Drugs. The STATES Act — a bipartisan bill to remove cannabis as a scheduled drug under the Controlled Substances Act — is one push for the federal government to take action.

“There is not reason to continue punishing someone harshly,” says Bell. “All the collateral consequences.”

 

Correction: A previous version of this article stated that the total New Jersey budget was $36.5 million; it is $36.5 billion.

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