NEWARK, NJ - Local lawmakers and clergy today called for marijuana expungement legislation or pardons, even if it means leaving recreational legalization in the dust.
While a separate expungement bill was initially introduced, it was added into the legalization bill. The vote for the legalization bill with the expungement provisions was ultimately canceled last month since it was not expected to garner enough votes in the state legislature.
Bishop Jethro James, who ministers at Paradise Baptist Church, called on Gov. Phil Murphy to pardon those with marijuana convictions, which would circumvent the legislative process.
“Governor, you claim that legislation with marijuana will be the reason and justification for putting together something to let our people out,” James said at press conference held at his church. “You have a pen, sir. I know they have paper in the statehouse. If not, I'm quite sure we'll all go to Staples and buy you a ream that you can write a pardon.”
He then invoked the Biblical words of Moses: “Let my people go,” James added.
James’ remarks came during a press conference today with local leaders, including Newark City Council President Mildred Crump and state Sen. Ron Rice (D-Essex). Crump also called for expungement to be divorced from legalization.
“The expungement -- it's a non sequitur,” said Newark Council President Mildred Crump. “There needs to be no discussion. Put that where it belongs, in a separate piece of legislation. In a separate bill. And when it comes to the medical marijuana, put that in a separate bill.”
Rice, a former Newark police officer and councilman, has sponsored a bill to decriminalize small amounts of marijuana and is staunchly opposed to legalization.
The recreational bill has been labeled as a social justice issue, especially by the legislation’s main sponsor, state Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D-Union) and Senate President Stephen Sweeney. But those at today’s press conference said it’s not a matter of benefiting urban communities. Rather, people like Rice said, it was simply about raking in money.
“It's not the first time we use 'social justice' as a way for Wall Street people to make money,” said Rice. “We did it for charter schools, we did it for bail reform and we continue to do it. The most unfortunate thing about it is the number of African Americans and people of color who buy into it.”
Newark’s council president also made it known that she was against recreational marijuana, hinting at a wave of local opposition for the pending state legislation to legalize it. She said people have asked if she would support a controversial legalization bill for recreational use.
“I said, without hesitation, I said, 'You're wasting your time. I'm not the one,’” Crump said.“I said I don't want it on Bergen Street. I don't want it on Clinton Avenue. I don't want it on Maple Avenue. I don't want it on my street. I don't want it on the North Ward, so forth and so on."
City council has still not even allowed medical marijuana dispensaries in Newark. A local ordinance to do so failed to gain enough votes twice, but it advanced earlier this month. The council will vote tonight to advance the measure further in city hall chambers at 6:30 p.m.
A number of other council members have also expressed reservations about recreational marijuana. While other municipalities have voted to ban recreational dispensaries, such a measure has not come before the council in Newark.
Mayor Ras Baraka has said he supports recreational marijuana, but only if expungement is tied to it. The mayor did not attend today’s press conference.
The population in Newark is overwhelmingly minority, and local opposition to recreational use could potentially send a strong message to state lawmakers.
Several other local groups showed support for the opposition of marijuana today, including the Newark chapters of the NAACP and National Action Network.
The recreational marijuana bill could go up for another vote in May, the next voting session in the state legislature. But that’s unlikely since the statehouse will probably be focused on budget negotiations.
Another vote on the bill could also come after November.