New Jersey lawmakers submitted a new cannabis decriminalization bill ahead of the state’s marijuana legalization referendum this November.

The legislation would ensure that individuals are no longer subject to criminal penalties for first time, low-level cannabis possession and distribution offenses. Instead, they would receive a written warning. Subsequent offenses would result in a small civil fine or community service.

The bill’s co-sponsors urged its swift passage as communities of color can’t afford to wait for the outcome of the state’s referendum later this year.

“The War on Drugs has ravaged communities of color for too long. While we await voter approval of legalization, we cannot forget about those arrested and incarcerated every day on marijuana-related charges,” said Sen. M. Theresa Ruiz (D). “By decriminalizing certain marijuana offenses, we can prevent countless unnecessary arrests and the attendant legal consequences over the next seven months.”

The bill, S2535, would establish a new automatic system to expunge an individual’s marijuana-related convictions, eliminating the need for a person to actively petition a court. The bill would seal all criminal records pertaining to low-level possession and distribution convictions. A further provision prohibits authorities from discriminating against people on the basis of expunged records or past marijuana-related infractions with law enforcement.

“We have been over-penalizing marijuana offenses for far too long,” said Sen. Sandra Bolden Cunningham (D), another sponsor of the bill. “This legislation will right the ship, revising the damaging criminal codes put in place under the war on drugs, which were intentionally created to target the black community.”

The proposed measure appears to stand a good chance of passing the New Jersey legislature. A whip count carried out last year by the New Jersey Globe revealed “more than enough votes in the Senate to pass a decriminalization bill.”

Last year, a marijuana legalization bill passed by the House did not make it the Senate floor for a vote owing to a lack of support. New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy, who campaigned in support of cannabis legalization, responded to the setback by urging marijuana decriminalization legislation and a new expedited expungement system. Cannabis reform advocates also shifted focus to legalizing marijuana through a statewide ballot initiative. A marijuana legalization ballot question was approved earlier this year, and a recent poll suggests the measure has a strong chance of success. If so, it would clear the way for the retail sale of taxed and regulated marijuana.

Sen. Ronald Rice, who sponsored the decriminalization bill but does not support marijuana legalization, said the measure is urgent irrespective of the forthcoming referendum.

“Whether or not voters decide to legalize marijuana in November, this should not change our stance on moving forward with the decriminalization of marijuana,” he said. “We cannot wait until the fall while countless members of the black and brown communities are target for marijuana-related offenses. If this state really wants to push social justice reform without an economic reward, this is how you achieve that goal.”

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