A bill that would decriminalize the possession of up to 15 grams (a little more than a half-ounce) of marijuana was approved Monday by the Assembly Judiciary Committee. The bill, Assembly Bill 1465, now heads for an Assembly floor vote.
Some 22,000 people were arrested for simple marijuana possession in the state last year, with blacks disproportionately represented. In addition to possible jail time, those arrested face other collateral consequences, such as difficulties finding a job or qualifying for housing.
The crowd in the hearing room and most witnesses, including a retired corrections officer, defense attorneys, a clergyman, a college instructor, and a representative from a drug addiction prevention group favored decriminalization, according to an account carried by New Jersey Real-Time News.
"Some acts harm society and they warrant the intervention of police, prosecutors and perhaps even incarceration," said the bill's prime Republican sponsor, Michael Patrick Carroll (R-Morris), who is also a committee member. "Other acts warrant at best, a spanking, and these seems to be one of these situations."
"These long-term consequences are unjust and expensive," said Candice Singer, a research analyst from the New Jersey chapter of the National Council on Alcoholism and Drug Dependence. "The police manpower utilized for these arrests is costly. It is beyond dispute that a criminal record interferes with one's ability to maintain employment. This not only hurts the individual and the individual's family, but it harms the economy and the state, preventing residents from becoming employed and paying income taxes."
Only Bruce Hummer of the New Jersey Prevention Network, which represents treatment professionals, spoke against the bill. He said decriminalization would "send a mixed message to our youth," who would be more likely to use the herb if it was seen as less harmful and "accepted" by the community.
But retired corrections officer Harry Camisa had a powerful retort to Hummer. "I have seen firsthand the devastating effects on these young kids who are sent to jail for what I consider a minor offense," Camisa said. "I always felt bad for the very young ones because by the time they asked for protective custody they had already been beaten with a lock in a sock, stabbed or sodomized."
Forty years ago, the Shafer Commission, recognizing that harsh penalties for marijuana had no scientific basis, called for the decriminalization of possession of small amounts for personal use. A handful of states took that advice in the 1970s, and after a long interregnum beginning with the Reagan years, in the past decade, more states have come on board. The number is now 14.