Assembly Panel Ok’s To Decriminalize Possession Of Small Amounts Of Marijuana

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TRENTON – An Assembly panel approved bipartisan legislation that would decriminalize the possession of 15 grams or less of marijuana.

“This bill would put us in line with neighboring states like Connecticut and New York, which recently decriminalized marijuana possession,” said Assemblyman Reed Gusciora (D-Mercer/Hunterdon). “The bill recognizes the realities of our current drug laws, which are overly punitive for marijuana and taxing on our criminal justice system.”

Under the bill (A-1465), a person who is caught possessing 15 grams or less of marijuana would be subject to a $150 fine for a first violation, a $200 fine for a second violation, and a $500 fine for a third or subsequent violation.

Additionally, a person who is caught possessing drug paraphernalia for the personal use of 15 grams or less of marijuana would no longer have committed a criminal violation but would be subject to a $100 civil penalty.

“Possession of a relatively small amount of marijuana can have serious long-term consequences on many aspects of a person’s life,” said Assemblywoman Bonnie Watson Coleman (D-Mercer/Hunterdon). “Once a person has a criminal record, it can affect their job, schooling, home life, and personal perception. Decriminalizing small possession would ease these burdens while also taking taxpayers off the hook for the cost of prosecuting these crimes.”

The bill would also require anyone under 21 who is caught with marijuana and anyone 21 and over who is caught three times, to undergo a drug education program. The person would be responsible for paying any costs associated with his participation in the program, consistent with his ability to pay. If the violation is committed by a person under the age of 18, the person would be referred to the Family Part of the Chancery Division of the Superior Court for an appropriate disposition.

“Fourteen other states have already made the move to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana,” said Assemblywoman L. Grace Spencer (D-Essex). “To continue to take such a heavy-handed approach to the situation will only exact further tolls on taxpayers and the otherwise law-abiding citizens who get caught with simple possession.”

Additionally, this bill would establish that it is no longer a disorderly persons offense to be under the influence of marijuana or to fail to voluntarily deliver 15 grams or less of marijuana to the nearest law enforcement officer. This bill would also eliminate the requirement that a person who operates a motor vehicle while in possession of 15 grams or less of marijuana must pay a $50 fine and forfeit the right to operate a motor vehicle for a period of two years.

The Commissioner of Human Services would be charged with adopting any rules or regulations necessary to carry out the bill.

“This is not about turning a blind eye, this is about taking a realistic approach to the situation,” said Assemblyman Peter Barnes III (D-Middlesex), Chair of the Assembly Judiciary Committee. “Marijuana is known to be far less addictive than alcohol or cigarettes and yet we spend untold dollars every year to arrest and prosecute individuals for simple possession.”

According to the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s annual Uniform Crime Report, marijuana arrests now comprise more than one-half (approximately 52 percent) of all drug arrests reported in the United States, with more than 800,000 people arrested for marijuana-related charges each year, the vast majority of them for simple possession.

A decade ago, marijuana arrests comprised just 44 percent of all drug arrests. Approximately 46 percent of all drug prosecutions nationwide are for marijuana possession. Of those charged with marijuana violations, approximately 88 percent (758,593 Americans) were charged with possession only.

Studies also indicate that users of marijuana have a relatively low rate of dependence. According to a federal Institute of Medicine study in 1999, fewer than 10 percent of those who try marijuana ever meet the clinical criteria for dependence, compared to 32 percent of tobacco users and 15 percent of alcohol users. Furthermore, according to the Drug Policy Alliance, there is no convincing evidence that heavy long-term marijuana use permanently impairs memory or other cognitive functions.

In addition to being supported by a number of advocacy organizations, including the Drug Policy Alliance, fourteen other states have decriminalized possession of small amounts of marijuana. Alaska, California, Colorado, Massachusetts, Nebraska, Nevada and Oregon have decriminalized possession of one ounce (about 28 grams) of marijuana or less. Connecticut and North Carolina have decriminalized one half ounce or less. Minnesota has decriminalized 42.5 grams or less; Mississippi: 30 grams or less; New York: 25 grams or less; and Ohio: 100 grams or less.

The legislation was unanimously approved by the Assembly Judiciary Committee by a vote of 7-0 and now awaits consideration by the full Assembly.

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