Money messed up marijuana legalization’s justice angle

A driving desire to steer control over a multi-billion dollar industry has forced politicians to withdraw marijuana legalization legislation in Trenton, but advocates from the ACLU-NJ and allies say they will redouble their efforts to pass a bill that places racial and social justice at the fore.

Entrepreneurs are watching for the billion-dollar marijuana industry to emerge if pot becomes legal, an economic opportunity unrivaled in modern Newe Jersey history. Politicians are hoping to capitalize on the action, which has gummed up the process of doing justice.

“With each day without legalization, we grow more committed to ending prohibition. We will get it done,” said ACLU-NJ Executive Director Amol Sinha. “As legalization comes closer within reach, every stride forward in the Legislature only demonstrates the urgency of ending the harms of prohibition now. We will stand even stronger, knowing that the lives of 30,000 people arrested each year for marijuana possession hang in the balance.”

The ACLU-NJ, along with its partners in the New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform (NJUMR) coalition, have worked toward a legalization plan that puts racial and social justice first.

NJUMR is a partnership of public safety, medical, civil rights, faith, political, and criminal justice reform organizations and individuals committed to changing New Jersey’s laws to legalize, tax, and regulate marijuana for adults 21 and older.

“We need to make marijuana legal in New Jersey now to stop tens of thousands of unfair arrests a year and to be able to adequately compete with other states that have had legal, regulated cannabis industries for years,” said Evan Nison, Board member of NJ NORML. “I support this bill as a good first step, and we’ll be back to push for home grow next year.”

“Properly executed, the powers given to the Cannabis Regulatory Commission will protect public health by ensuring that cannabis is cultivated, tested, labeled, and sold in retail establishments to adults under strict government supervision. There are deterrents to underage use that do not currently exist under prohibition,” said Dr. David Nathan, Doctors for Cannabis Regulation. “The social justice provisions of this bill will facilitate expungement of cannabis offenses, promote minority participation in the industry, and bring some measure of equity to communities devastated by the drug war – which are mainly communities of color.”

“Marijuana arrest disparities amount to a civil rights crisis,” said Democrat Lisa McCormick. “Black New Jerseyans are arrested three times more than white citizens, despite similar usage rates.”

“Ending prohibition of marijuana would put an end to the tremendous harms caused by our current laws, advance racial justice, create jobs, increase public safety, and generate hundreds of millions of dollars in revenue,” said McCormick, who declared that “nobody should be imprisoned for smoking pot and police should not waste time on it.”

“It’s time to move away from our failed approach to marijuana, and build a safe, controlled and regulated system,” said McCormick. “It’s time to reform New Jersey’s marijuana laws because fairness and public safety demand nothing less.”

The bill before the Legislature includes forward-thinking measures that endeavor to reverse the injustices wrought by the drug war:

  • An expedited expungement process
  • Non-discrimination policies based on cannabis use
  • Opportunities for those with criminal records to work in the industry
  • Requirement of at least one social justice representative on the marijuana regulatory commission
  • Provisions for diversity in the industry

“The fact that the margins were a hair too thin for the vote to go forward is a disappointment, but that should not be the takeaway for today. We’re closer than ever before to passing the most socially and racially conscious legalization plan in the country, and today was one further step toward that ultimate goal,” Sinha said. “Legalization is an urgent civil rights issue of our era, and it’s up to advocates in the coming weeks and month to make that urgency clear.”

State Senate President Stephen Sweeney, D-Gloucester, recently said he would not consider decriminalization.

“If you decriminalize it, you basically legalize the guy on the corner selling this stuff,” Sweeney said at an unrelated event on Monday.

Sweeney said that he was open to looking at different plans and state Sen. Ronald Rice, D-Essex, has been pushing his own decriminalization bill, which was introduced last year but has not been considered.

Rice favors marijuana decriminalization and said he wants to work with others in the Legislature to “tighten up” the language in the bill.

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