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Some N.J. Lawmakers Raise Concerns Over Bill To Legalize Recreational Marijuana


New Jersey lawmakers are considering a bill to legalize recreational marijuana. In part, it aims to tackle disparities in the criminal justice system, and that would distinguish New Jersey from most of the states that have already passed similar laws. Some say that would help African Americans, who are most likely to be arrested for marijuana. Others disagree, as WNYC's Karen Rouse reports.


PHIL MURPHY: Good afternoon, everyone.

KAREN ROUSE, BYLINE: Back in March, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy called a last-minute press conference for a contentious bill to legalize recreational marijuana he knew he didn't have enough support for.


MURPHY: This week alone, more than 600 New Jerseyans, the majority of whom will be persons of color, will be arrested for marijuana possession and will have a criminal record that will hurt their prospects of getting a job or getting an education.

ROUSE: At the press conference, Murphy said if cannabis was legal, the disproportionately high number of arrests of black and brown men would stop. But he also called for creating a legal marijuana industry to get rid of those he called the bad guys running the illegal market. It's an argument New Jersey residents have been hearing for the last year from politicians and the cannabis industry that has spent more than a million dollars lobbying elected officials.

RON RICE: It's insulting to tell black people that we want to help you.

ROUSE: New Jersey's highest ranking black legislator, Senator Ron Rice, says he isn't buying it. He says the bill is not about social justice. It's about making the wealthy white marijuana industry even richer on the backs of black people.

RICE: You should not be incarcerated three times greater than white folk, OK? But we will not turn you loose by any means unless you legalize this stuff so we can make some money. That's insulting, and I know when people are playing me.

ROUSE: I spoke to Rice at his district office in Newark, a city he's represented for 30 years as he and an aide compiled documents that show the risks of marijuana.

RICE: It's work to be done. There's a lot of money flowing in here that's pushing this stuff from outside the state.

ROUSE: His battle is not just political. It's personal. Rice, who is 73, is a former Newark police officer and a sergeant in the U.S. Marine Corps who served in Vietnam. And there's a part of his life he doesn't like to talk about. His sister died last year at 56. He says her death was the result of damage to her body from years of drug abuse. She started at 16 with marijuana.

RICE: Peer pressure and stuff like that.

ROUSE: When Rice was a Newark council member, he sent police to lock her up.

RICE: I didn't want her dying out in the street, killing herself. And she was just tearing my parents up. But that's what saved her.

ROUSE: Now he worries legalization will create a new crop of addicts in New Jersey's inner cities and suburbs. It's an issue African American officials are wrestling with across the country. An Illinois chapter of the NAACP calls it a form of modern-day slavery where they say white people own the majority of businesses, and black people get hooked on their product.

But there is also a movement of black legislators and civil rights activists who say marijuana legalization is inevitable and if they don't demand a role in shaping it now, they'll get left behind. If the two sides share something in common, it's a mistrust of the industry.

JAMEL HOLLEY: So what do we do? Do we sit and allow this debate to continue and do nothing?

ROUSE: One of those is State Assemblyman Jamel Holley.

HOLLEY: Or do we take a stance and say, let's correct what is going on right now, fix it, amend it and move forward?

ROUSE: Holley has a reputation as a go-getter. At 21, he was one of the youngest chiefs of staff in Trenton. He reminisced recently when he ran into a former legislator at a speaking event in Jersey City.

HOLLEY: We had some battles, man.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: We had some good battles.

HOLLEY: I was 21 years old.

ROUSE: Now at 39, he represents Elizabeth and Union, two cities with large black and Latino populations.

HOLLEY: Eighty people every single day in the state of New Jersey is arrested for low-level possessions of marijuana. Most of those people tend to look like me.

ROUSE: Holley agreed to become the assembly sponsor of a cannabis bill in the Senate, but he says early versions didn't say what to do about the tens of thousands of New Jerseyans who have arrest records stemming from marijuana possession or distribution. He and other minority legislators amended it. The final bill allows people convicted of selling or using up to five pounds to apply for their records to be cleared. It also allows them to apply for licenses to sell legally. Holley said...

HOLLEY: New Jersey will have the strongest social justice component than any other state.

ROUSE: Recreational marijuana is legal in 10 states, but most bills did not address the disparity in arrests. Towns in California are scrambling to correct that, amending laws to include records expungements. Meanwhile, Senator Ron Rice says he has a solution for New Jersey. He's proposed a bill to decriminalize marijuana. That way, the arrests would stop, but no one would get rich. For NPR News, I'm Karen Rouse. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Karen Rouse