Pot Bill Staggers out of Judiciary

Scutari

An amended marijuana bill finally made it out of the Senate Judiciary Committee today, but not everyone was satisfied.

Ronald Rice, an Essex County Democrat, objected to the bill because it failed to scrap qualified immunity for police officers arresting underage users.

And from the other end of the political spectrum. there was Warren County Republican Michael Doherty who worried that society was losing its “sense of order.”

Both voted no.

Republican Kip Bateman abstained.

That didn’t stop the heavily Democratic committee from releasing the bill with six “yes” votes.

Voters strongly backed legalizing recreational pot last fall, but how to make that actually happen has bedeviled lawmakers ever since.

The problem has been penalizing underage users of pot. As passed last fall, recreational marijuana is only legal for those 21 and older.

Pressure on this issue has come primarily from Black and Hispanic lawmakers who fear underage minority youths will be more susceptible to arrest than young suburban whites.

Previous incarnations of, if you will, the “penalty bill,” established a $50 fine for underage users,

Amendments presented today, however, offered “modifying consequences” in the words of one staffer.

Underage offenders would now face a tiered punishment that includes warnings, parental notification and perhaps counseling.

Rice seemed to accept that, but he wanted the bill to officially do away with “qualified immunity” for police. Eliminating  immunity would make it easier to sue police officers for alleged wrongdoing in making pot arrests.

But Nicholas Scutari, the committee chair, refused to allow a vote on Rice’s suggestion. He said the committee would vote only on the written amendments before it.

Rice, a veteran lawmaker, said Scutari had the power to call for a vote.

Scutari was unmoved, saying this is how he runs his committee. He did suggest that Rice bring his amendment to the floor when the full Senate takes up the bill next week.

As for Doherty, he took exception to what he considered too many restrictions on police officers encountering underage kids smoking pot. Specifically, he complained about a provision in the bill that said officers can not search suspects for pot even if they are observed using it.

Police, he said, would have to walk a very fine line.

This drama will continue to play out next week when both houses try to finalize pot legalization.

Gov. Phil Murphy, as is his wont, looked on the bright side of things.

He praised Black and Hispanic lawmakers for their “extraordinary work” in trying to make legalizing pot equitable.

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