NEWARK, NJ - Sen. Ron Rice (D-Newark) says he won’t vote on the upcoming state budget until marijuana decriminalization gets approved in the legislature.
“After two years of feigned concern from state leadership and legislators about unfair arrests and convictions for people with small amount offenses – mostly black and brown, mostly poor New Jerseyans – I refuse to excuse the charade.”
Rice, a former Newark police officer, has been a leading opponent against legalizing recreational marijuana. He has sponsored a bill that would decriminalize small amounts of marijuana possession, making it a civil penalty rather than a criminal one.
But state lawmakers have mostly left decriminalization in the review mirror ever since a vote for recreational use was canceled in March. While there was strong enough support for legalization in the assembly, the senate wasn’t there.
Both houses on Monday approved a bill that would expedite expungement for certain marijuana offenses. It was sponsored by state Sen. M. Teresa Ruiz (D-Essex) and Senate President Stephen Sweeney (D-Gloucester).
It now heads to Murphy's desk for approval, but it's unclear if he will sign it.
Murphy campaigned heavily on marijuana legalization and coined it as a social justice issue. But he’s also said it doesn’t make sense to expunge an offense that would remain illegal.
The budget approval deadline, meanwhile, is July 1. The millionaire’s tax is a key component for Murphy, while pensions is a focus of Sweeney.
“As long as we have black and brown people in jail at a rate three times greater than whites who commit the same marijuana violations, I will not vote for a budget that asks my opinion on a millionaire’s tax or pensions for union workers,” Rice said.
Rice, who heads the Legislative Black Caucus, said Murphy and Sweeney tried to pitch legalization to the "middle class and wealthy whites" by saying it would bring $140 million in property tax relief by eliminating marijuana-related judicial costs.
“I could not maintain my dignity as a person or my integrity as a senator were I to vote for any budget that does not include the $140 million cost savings gained through a decriminalization law that eliminates unjust judicial and correctional practices targeting poor, minority and urban residents.”