Perfection shouldn’t stand in the way of progress. That was the overall message put forth by New Jersey senators debating cannabis decriminalization legislation on Monday.
While the Assembly held off on voting because of the inclusion of psilocybin language, the Senate’s push to pass the bill focused on ending cannabis possession arrests ahead of implementing full legalization legislation, which voters passed on Election Day. The Senate eventually passed the decriminalization bill, 29 to 4.
“I still have to think about the person who is on the street corner, who could get detained,” Senator Teresa Ruiz, a sponsor of the bill, which would decriminalize up to six ounces of cannabis, said on the floor.
Senator Nia Gill opposed two aspects of the bill and proposed amendments on “virtual expungements,” which she said could give some people a false sense of security while their records aren’t truly expunged. Gill also opposed the inclusion of language to lower penalties related to psilocybin for first-time offenders, saying it just didn’t make sense to add psilocybin to a cannabis decrim bill.
“How can we decriminalize a psychedelic drug called magic mushrooms, when the basis for the decriminalization is the disproportionate impact on Black and brown communities who are arrested for marijuana?” Gill asked.
Senator Nicholas Scutari defended the amendment that would reduce psilocybin possession penalties, saying the bill would not be “decriminalizing anything,” but rather reducing potential sentences from five years to six months.
There was some concern over the extent to which cannabis legislation would change how law enforcement officers do their jobs. Senator Gerald Cardinale opposed an aspect of the bill that would no longer allow cops to stop people due to the smell of cannabis.
“This bill doesn’t defund the police, but it de-fangs the police. It handcuffs police,” Cardinale said.
Senator Sandra Cunningham urged the Senate’s passage of decriminalization on Monday, regardless of whether there were imperfections in the bill.
“This is real. This affects people’s lives every single day. We don’t have another day to wait to get back. We need to be worried about getting this done now. This is the legislation we have at hand. If it needs to be improved, we can do that,” Cunningham said. “We have real people here, real people with real issues, real people who are being arrested as we speak.”
Ruiz later added that the work isn’t done, and that the decriminalization bill is a “great first step in attempting to bring justice and equity to historically impacted communities.”
“We have to work on legislation that will empower disenfranchised people by creating racial and social reparations for those neighborhoods most impacted. I am hopeful that the communities devastated by these inequitable and discriminatory policies will be made whole again,” Ruiz said.
Cunningham mentioned that Jersey City became the first jurisdiction in the state to decriminalize.
“The fact is, marijuana arrests and prosecutions in New Jersey, and around the nation, point to severe inequalities that negatively impact people of color disproportionately, and lead to long-term economic challenges for anyone who finds themselves prosecuted for possession,” Mayor Steven Fulop said at the time. “We are working to correct this with our new policy in a proactive way, and I am proud that we will be the first in the state to do so.”