NEWARK, NJ - For a panel of lawmakers and advocates at the Abyssinian Baptist Church, it wasn't a matter of if a marijuana market boom was coming to New Jersey. It was just a matter of when.

For Newark Mayor Ras Baraka, it was pivotal that people in his community, who he said have been victimized by drug laws, get to profit from that industry. He was part of an eight-member panel yesterday that discussed marijuana policies to dozens of residents at the church along West Kinney Street.  

"It is a problem if you are doing 15 years in jail because of the money you made -- a hundred something thousand dollars on the corner of Clinton and Chadwick  -- and now somebody is going to make a billion dollars off of something you're doing 15 years in jail for."

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New Jersey’s attorney general asked all municipal prosecutor’s to adjourn marijuana-related offenses in municipal court until September. The move coincides with state lawmakers mulling two separate bills: one for full marijuana legalization and another for decriminalization of small amounts.

Gov. Phil Murphy's administration is also expanding the number of medical marijuana dispensaries in the state. It can be prescribed for anxiety, migraines and Tourette's syndrome. 

Newark is already gearing up for either a recreational or medical marijuana market.

The mayor said creating some type of seed fund to help people apply for dispensary applications would "make sense," in response to one person's interest in the medical market. The Newark Community Economic Development Corporation is unveiling a program soon for those who are interested in getting involved in the cannabis industry, said the agency’s president and CEO, Aisha Glover.

State Sen. Ron Rice, a former Newark councilman, and leader of the state Legislative Black Caucus, is a sponsor of the decriminalization bill and is opposed to state Sen. Nicholas Scuatri’s legalization legislation.

Yesterday’s panel included all pro-legalization advocates and lawmakers, including state Assemblyman Jamel Holley and Assemblywoman Angela McKnight. Both said they wouldn’t support a bill that doesn’t have a “social equity” component to it.

“There will not be a bill that I support if it does not have a social equity program, if it doesn't have expedited expungement, if it doesn't have a community reinvestment fund, and if it doesn't have the means that we need to ensure that our communities are protected,” said Holley, who represents parts of Union County with Scutari.

The panel’s slant towards full legalization was not lost upon one attendee: Bishop Jethro James, of Paradise Baptist Church. The mayor said Rice was invited to the panel, but couldn’t make it.

“There's no bill that's going to preclude you from being drug tested in this state,” James said, adding that the cannabis industry won’t supply enough jobs to lift the black community out of poverty.

None on the panel spoke ill of Rice, who has reportedly raised concerns about edible products like marijuana cupcakes if Scutari's bill pass. 

“The press has a funny way of trying to pit each other against each other. I will tell you that you will not have one negative comment from me to say about Senator Ron Rice about this issue and this conversation,” Holley said, which was met with applause from the mayor.

"We are black men, and unfortunately we just disagree on this issue. But we don't have to disrespect one another."

Marijuana is used by African-Americans and whites at about the same rate, according to a 2013 American Civil Liberties Union study. Yet, African Americans account for a disproportionate share of marijuana arrests. The effects of a marijuana conviction are long-lasting too, causing a person to lose financial aid, housing or driver’s license.

The press was not allowed to ask the mayor any questions after the event, but a spokeswoman for the mayor later clarified via email that Baraka supports legalization.

“We need to organize ourselves in a way where we're not victimized by other people's policies, Baraka said. “That we make sure that we are not on the menu, but invited to the table.”

The other speakers at yesterday’s panel included Congressman Donald Payne, Jr., marijuana entrepreneur Virgil Grant, criminal defense lawyer Ray Hamlin, New Jersey Cannabis Industry Association Hugh O’Beirne and ACLU Policy Counsel Dianna Houenou.

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