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MARIJUANA MOMENT

New Jersey lawmakers advance marijuana decriminalization bill ahead of legalization referendum

Julio Cortez/Associated Press

Marijuana Moment is a wire service assembled by Tom Angell, a marijuana legalization activist and journalist covering marijuana reform nationwide. The views expressed by Angell or Marijuana Moment are neither endorsed by the Globe nor do they reflect the Globe’s views on any subject area.

New Jersey lawmakers advanced a bill Monday that would decriminalize the possession of up to two ounces of marijuana and reduce penalties for larger amounts. The vote comes ahead of a statewide referendum in November to more broadly legalize cannabis for adult use.

The legislation, which was merged with a separate bill dealing with cannabis reform, was approved by the Assembly Community Development and Affairs Committee in a 4-0 vote, with two abstentions.

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Under the proposal, possession of up to two ounces of marijuana “would be an unlawful act subject only to a civil penalty of $50,” according to a summary. Possession of more than two ounces but less than one pound would be punishable by up to six months in prison or up to a $1,000 fine for a first offense.

“If we’re going to start to break away at the layers of the systematic injustice of possession of marijuana, why not try to at least introduce bills and support bills that will get us to that end goal of legalizing marijuana?” said Assemblyman Jamel Holley, one of the chief sponsors of the bill.

“My take is that I support full legalization, but we got to take these small steps to get to that,” he said. “These bills demonstrate our focus and our goal of ultimately making marijuana legal and decriminalizing possession of the substance.”

Additionally, the bill would create a “legal presumption” that possession of up to two ounces “is the authorized possession of medical cannabis or a medical cannabis product” under state law. Only if there’s a “preponderance of evidence” would such possession be considered unlawful and warrant a civil penalty.

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This is the latest piece of decriminalization legislation to move forward in the New Jersey Legislature in the run-up to a marijuana legalization referendum that was placed on the ballot after a comprehensive reform bill failed to win a majority of lawmakers’ support last year.

A separate measure to decriminalize possession of up to a pound of cannabis was introduced in the Senate earlier this month.

The legislation approved in committee on Monday would also provide for “virtual expungements” for convictions where the penalties were reduced under the bill. The expungement would be available “without need to petition a court for an expungement order granting such result.” Another provision calls for expanded education about opportunities for expungements.

The proposal also provides protection from discrimination for people affected by cannabis laws.

“This bill would provide an array of civil protections against discrimination targeting persons with an arrest, charge, conviction, or adjudication of delinquency involving any of the aforementioned marijuana and hashish distribution, possession, and drug paraphernalia crimes or offenses,” the summary states. “These protections would include monetary penalties, enforceable by the State, against employers regarding employment actions or persons involved with mortgage lending activities, as well as a private cause of action for discrimination in public or private housing, real property, or any place of public accommodation.”

Further, the legislation would make it so that records of such offenses would not be made publicly available.

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While there is some concern among reform advocates that the Legislature’s focus in the interim on decriminalization could detract from the legalization referendum, a poll released in April showed that 61 percent of respondents said they planned to vote for the measure.

Holley emphasized that legalization should be the next step, and lawmakers should additionally be pursuing social equity measures such as reinvestments in communities disproportionately impacted by the drug war and ensuring that individuals from those communities are able to equitably participate in the legal market that emerges.

Read the story on Marijuana Moment.