N.J. black and Latino leaders renew push for marijuana decriminalization

 (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

(AP Photo/Jeff Chiu, File)

Black and Latino leaders in New Jersey say Gov. Phil Murphy and legislative leaders are not doing enough to advance the cause of social justice in the state.

At an event Thursday in Trenton, a coalition of lawmakers and advocates called on the top Democrats to take up or sign several pieces of legislation they said would help black and Latino residents across the Garden State.

“We had to wait to be freed from slavery. We had to wait to become equal. We had to wait for the right to vote. We had to wait for the Civil Rights Act to pass,” said State Sen. Ron Rice, D-Essex.

“We want justice for black and brown people now,” he added.

One of the top items pushed by the group was legislation to decriminalize marijuana, now that state lawmakers have abandoned an effort to legalize the drug due to a lack of support in the state Senate. (Rice himself opposed legalizing recreational marijuana, but supports decriminalization.)

Lawmakers have said it is likely that the question of marijuana legalization will go before the voters on the 2020 general election ballot.

But some in the group, like Rev. Charles Boyer of Bethel AME Church in Woodbury, suggested that would not help the black and Latino people currently being arrested for marijuana possession at higher rates than whites.

“Big Marijuana will be well-funded and incentivized to get legalization with as little strings attached as possible,” Boyer said. “Therefore decriminalization must happen now to ensure people are restored and made whole, to ensure we stop arresting our way out of addiction.”

State Sen. President Steve Sweeney, D-Gloucester, said he does not currently support the idea but would discuss it with Rice.

“I’m looking to sit down with [Senator Rice]. I’m not there at this point, but I’m willing to listen,” Sweeney said Thursday.

The coalition also called on Murphy to sign legislation on his desk that would overhaul the state’s criminal-record expungement process.

When the bill passed both houses of the Legislature earlier this month, a spokeswoman for Murphy declined to say whether he would sign the measure.

“If you care, Governor Murphy, and this is truly to be a fairer New Jersey, then the people’s suffering must begin to end,” said Carolyn Chang, the immediate past president of the Association of Black Women Lawyers. “We ask that you do the right thing and sign the revised expungement bill into law.”

Advocates also called on Murphy to close down the state’s three youth prisons and abandon plans devised during the former administration of Gov. Chris Christie to build three new facilities in their place.

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