TRENTON Getting busted with fewer than 15 grams of marijuana would carry no criminal penalty in New Jersey under a bill that won unanimous support from the Assembly Judiciary Committee today.
With few objections from the crowd in a packed hearing room at the Statehouse, the committee approved a bill that would replace criminal penalties with fines for those caught with fewer than 15 grams of marijuana, or about 30 joints.
"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."
Supporters included a retired corrections officer, defense attorneys, a clergyman, a college instructor, and a representative from a drug addiction prevention group. They argued that people arrested for possessing marijuana — there were about 22,000 in the state last year — face far worse consequences than the crime deserves, such as difficulty obtaining a job, or qualifying for housing. Far more African Americans face jail time that Caucasians, even though drug use rates are about equal, perpetuating a vast racial injustice.
"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."
First offenses are punishable by a $150 fine, $200 for a second offense and $500 for a third offense. The fine may be waived if the person charged can demonstrate "extreme hardship," according to the bill, (A1465). The fines would be collected by municipal court.
The law now allows a judge to impose a six-month jail term and $1,000 when a person is convicted of pot possession.
Bruce Hummer of the New Jersey Prevention Network, an association of treatment professionals, said decriminalizing marijuana would "send a mixed message to our youth" who would be more likely to use the drug if they perceived it as less harmful and "accepted by the community.
But Harry Camisa of Yardville, a retired state corrections officer, said for the sake of teenagers he has seen traumatized and abuse in prison, the committee must support the bill.
"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."
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