Hearing Set on Changing NJ Marijuana Law

Assembly committee to consider decriminalizing small amounts of marijuana

New Jersey lawmakers are set to consider a bill that would decriminalize the possession of up to a half ounce of marijuana, a move that would bring the state's drug policies closer to those in neighboring Connecticut and New York.

The Assembly Judiciary Committee is slated to hold a hearing Monday that would downgrade possession of small amounts of marijuana and drug paraphernalia, making both punishable by fines. The proposal calls for penalties of $100 to $500 for marijuana possession and fines of $100 for possession of a pipe, rolling papers and other drug paraphernalia. Violators who are underage or have multiple convictions would be referred for drug counseling.

The proposal is co-sponsored by 15 Democrats and 3 Republicans.

Democratic Assemblyman Reed Gusciora of Trenton, a primary sponsor, told The Associated Press that the bill recognizes that current drug laws are overly punitive for marijuana. Currently, conviction for possession for a single joint could result in a sentence of up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Additionally, $800 in mandatory court fees and a six-month loss of driver's license would be imposed.

“This bill would put us in line with neighboring states of Connecticut and New York, which recently decriminalized marijuana possession,” said Gusciora, a municipal prosecutor in Princeton and Hopewell Boroughs and Lawrenceville.

The bill is supported by the Drug Policy Alliance, which says the current law wastes law enforcement officers' time and taxpayer money.

“More than 22,000 individuals were arrested for marijuana possession in New Jersey in 2010,” said Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey State Director of the Drug Policy Alliance. “People may lose jobs or be unable to secure employment because of a criminal record. Students who incur a marijuana conviction can lose their student loans.”

No companion bill has been introduced in the Senate.

Republican Gov. Chris Christie has proposed mandatory treatment for nonviolent drug offenders rather than jail, and he has appropriated $2.5 million in next year's proposed budget to get the program started. He said it's time to empty prisons of inmates who are drug-dependent but who are not criminals.

Democrats prefer a limited and more affordable pilot program to see if mandatory treatment really works.

Democratic Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman of Ewing said imposing mandatory treatment statewide would cost $20 million.

The Assembly Judiciary Committee approved a measure this month that advocate the go-slow approach.

One bill creates a two-year mandatory drug treatment pilot program in two counties. Another bill allows for criminal drug records to be erased for people who successfully complete the intensive drug treatment program.

Find more information about state marijuana laws here.

Copyright AP - Associated Press
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