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New Jersey moves closer to legal marijuana

NEW JERSEY — Lawmakers in Trenton voted Monday to release a 144-page bill from a joint Senate and Assembly Budget and Appropriations committee that could legalize recreational marijuana for adults.

More than 90 people signed up to testify for and against the bill, but lawmakers had to cut public testimony short for time after the hearing extended for hours into the afternoon.

Among the issues raised were: addiction; increased accidents by drivers under the influence; social justice and expungements.

Things got particularly heated when a panel of law enforcement experts were called to testify. Some stated that officers would have a difficult time enforcing the laws around impaired driving.

"We are not able to be able to establish impaired driving and enforce impaired driving as we had drunk driving," said John Zebrowski, Sayreville police chief and a vice president with the New Jersey State Chiefs Association. "The science is not available and the equipment is not available and the training is somewhat not available as well."

"So then what are your officers doing now?" retorted the marijuana bill's chief sponsor, Senator Nick Scutari (D-Union). "We have to do better anyway!"

Lawmakers also heard impassioned testimony from a former addict, New Jersey resident and former Rhode Island Congressman Patrick Kennedy who highlighted the government's failure at regulating pharmaceutical drugs.

"If hasn't work on Oxycontin, what in the world makes you think you can keep this horse in the barn?" he shouted.

This bill (S-2703) would legalize an ounce of marijuana for adults 21 and up. It does call for accelerated expungements for those convicted of possession.

"This is first and foremost for me, a matter of social justice," said Governor Phil Murphy, at a separate press event.

Murphy applauded the legislature's progress on the bill. He campaigned on making marijuana legal.

In 2016, more than 32,000 people in New Jersey were arrested for possession of marijuana, but the New Jersey ACLU has found that blacks were arrested at rate three times that of whites despite similar usage rates.

"The top priorities in the coming weeks and years for legalization must be equity and earnest efforts to repair the devastation wrought by decades of aggressive and discriminatory enforcement of unjust marijuana laws," said ACLU-NJ Policy Counsel Dianna Houenou.

ACLU-NJ is calling for amendments to the existing legislation, including money to be routed to help pay for expungements and investments for communities harmed by the drug war.

Law enforcement testimony called for more time to study the issue of legalization prior to passage.

But some lawmakers balked at that request.

"How long does African American males need to be under the gun?" exclaimed Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-Union). "Why can’t we have relief right now for expedited expungements?"

A separate bill is pending that would revise expungement procedures for those convicted of marijuana possession.

“Creating a process for residents to clear their name and their record had to be a part of, a critical part of, cannabis regulation," stated Holley.

The recreational marijuana bill will now moves to the full senate and assembly for a vote.

As it stands, this bill would tax legal sales of marijuana at 12 percent. Towns will have the option to tack a 2 percent local tax on top of that.

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