HILLSIDE, NJ - While New Jersey lurches toward legalizing recreational marijuana, one Newark lawmaker is leading the conversation against it. 

State Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex), who on Monday hosted a town hall in Hillside, believes the current legalization bill would lead to more foreclosures in Newark, drive up the health care costs and do little to address the racial disparities in the criminal justice system for past - and future - marijuana convictions.  

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Rice, a former Newark councilman and police officer, is staunchly opposed to state Sen. Nicholas Scutari’s (D-Union) bill that would legalize recreational marijuana. Instead, Rice is sponsoring a bill that would decriminalize small amounts of the drug.

“The Senate President is trying to fast track a bill Senator Nick Scutari and outside wealth investors [have pushed] under the auspices of social justice and helping black and brown people,” Rice wrote in a letter addressed to taxpayers that was passed out at the town hall. “If truth be told, it’s not about helping us. It is, as always, people making money at our expense.”

Rice participated in a separate, earlier town hall in Newark to discuss the marijuana issue on Aug. 23, and he plans to stump for his bill in other municipalities around the state too.

The New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus, which Rice chairs, hasn’t taken a stance on legalization or decriminalization, the state senator said.  

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Although marijuana arrests have gone down in states where the drug has become legalized, a Drug Policy Alliance study showed black people are still more likely than whites to be arrested for underage possession, unlicensed sales and public consumption.

Rice was also concerned that legalization would increase foreclosures in Newark, since he believed low-income people would spend their money on marijuana instead of rent or mortgage payments.

“They're struggling on low-incomes to make ends meet - and we may be subsidizing some of them - and they're doing okay,” Rice said. “So all of a sudden, you legalize recreational marijuana. Some of these people try, they like it, they start shaving some of the rent money off. Then they're coming up short."

Those were one of the many reasons why he refuted the idea that legalization would have a positive economic and social impact on black communities. Rice said he was split with some African American clergy, who say legalization will benefit their communities.

"They need to pay attention to our history, where we come from, and how people continue to make money off of crisis and problems within our community,” Rice said.

Newark Mayor Ras Baraka supports legal recreational marijuana and is already looking to enable residents to have a stake in the adult-use industry.

“It’s his decision for whatever reason he’s doing it,” Rice told TAPinto Newark when asked about Baraka’s opposing position, later adding that, “I don’t think it’s the best decision for Newark.”

However, both Rice and the mayor seem to agree on one issue: People’s past marijuana convictions need to be expunged.

Baraka today called on the state legislature to strengthen provisions for expungement of marijuana convictions and to compensate people who live in "social impact zones," or areas that have been "damaged" by marijuana prohibition.

“While I support legalization, I can only support legislation that goes even farther to remedy the damage to communities of color caused by years of cannabis prohibition,” Baraka wrote in a letter to members of the New Jersey Urban Mayors' Association.

State Assemblywoman Annette Quijano, (D-Union), is sponsoring a bill that would expedite expungement of marijuana offenses in the event of decriminalization or legalization.

But it’s a complex issue. Court officials at a June 4 state Assembly Judiciary Committee hearing about expungement explained they could not separate a marijuana conviction from a person’s records if they were arrested and found guilty on multiple charges in one case.

MORE: Listen to the entire judiciary committee hearing

What’s more, many court records are now filed electronically, but only go back so many years. Tracking down paper records for expungement would require time-consuming manual effort.

It's still unclear how soon Quijano's bill would pass should decriminalization or legalization become law. But state Assemblyman Jamel Holley (D-Union) has added several amendments to Scutari’s legalization bill, including one that would automatically expunge people’s records.

Baraka, in his letter to the NJ Urban Mayors' Association, said he supports Holley's amendments. Read the full letter below: 

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