By Phillip Smith
As New Jersey legislators consider a marijuana decriminalization bill, a new poll suggests strong public support for such a move -- and more. The poll of likely voters conducted by Lake Research Partners for the Drug Policy Alliance found that 61% favored decriminalization and nearly as many (59%) agreed with taxing, regulating, and legalizing marijuana.
"New Jersey voters are ready for aggressive and immediate change of state marijuana laws, with strong majorities supporting decriminalizing up to two ounces of marijuana," said Daniel Gotoff, a partner at Lake Research. "Support for this reform is remarkably broad, including majorities of Democrats, independents, and Republicans, as well as voters from every major region in the state."
The poll comes as the legislature is considering Senate Bill 1977, which would decriminalize the possession of up to 50 grams (slightly less than two ounces) of marijuana and make possession a civil violation carrying a fine similar to a traffic ticket. The bill sponsored by Senator Nicholas Scutari (D-Middlesex, Somerset and Union), Senator Loretta Weinberg (D-Bergen) and Senator Sandra Cunningham (D-Hudson) is currently before the Senate Judiciary Committee.
The release of the poll could be designed to prod the legislature to act on marijuana reform. SB 1977 was filed more than a year ago and still has not been scheduled for a committee hearing. Another measure, Assembly Bill 1465, which would decriminalize up to 15 grams, actually passed the Assembly last June, only to languish in the Senate Judiciary Committee ever since.
Under current New Jersey law, simple marijuana possession is a criminal misdemeanor punishable by up to six months in jail and a $1,000 fine. Conviction on a pot possession charges also creates a criminal record that cannot be expunged for at least five years.
Once an individual is convicted of even a minor possession offense, he or she is subject to a system of legal discrimination that makes it difficult or impossible to secure housing, employment, public assistance, federal student aid for higher education, and even a basic driver's license.
Marijuana possession prosecutions also disproportionately target the Garden State's black population. African-Americans are arrested for pot possession at a rate nearly three times that of whites, even though both groups use marijuana at roughly the same rate.
"More than 22,000 individuals were arrested for marijuana possession in New Jersey in 2010 at a cost of more than $125 million dollars," said Roseanne Scotti, New Jersey state director for the Drug Policy Alliance. "New Jerseyans understand that current penalties for marijuana are unfair and wasteful. These laws should be changed now. "
If legislators heed the popular will and pass the decriminalization bill, New Jersey will join 15 other states that have decriminalized pot possession in amounts ranging from half an ounce to three ounces.