Senator Ronald L. Rice today penned a letter to New Jersey’s legislative leadership requesting an impact study for Senate Bill S21 which outlines regulation, enforcement and marketing details for the newly approved marijuana legalization referendum. He called upon Senate President Stephen M. Sweeney and General Assembly Speaker Craig J. Coughlin to initiate a racial and ethnic impact study pursuant to P.L.2017, c.286 to spur important dialog among legislators and minimize unfavorable outcomes in specific communities within their districts. His statement to the public is as follows:
For too long, social justice and economic justice for people of color in New Jersey has been denied and/or delayed. Now that the legalization of adult use recreational marijuana has been approved by voters, some of my legislative colleagues are all but tripping over themselves to open the floodgates to marijuana sales and reward the lobbyists and investors at the center of this feeding frenzy. But my colleagues need to take a breath and remember that legalization became a referendum because the bi-partisan majority of us could not in good faith pass it as legislation beneficial to New Jersey. It now needs to be gently, diligently shepherded into enactment with social justice unmistakably at its core. An impact study will go a long way toward that goal.
Social justice, economic justice and criminal justice reform have been the main focus of my 34 years as a senator. Knowing that Blacks made up only about 15 percent of our state population but accounted for a full 60 percent of the prison population, I sponsored the first bi-partisan marijuana decriminalization bill three years ago with Republican Senator Bob Singer. Instead of capturing the imagination and enthusiasm of key Senate judiciary committee members, that bill, and subsequent others, were ignored and dismissed. What did manage to spur movement and momentum was the sparkle of revenue that could be snagged by legalization. They saw marijuana as a cash cow that could be milked as a source of income for our state and a windfall profit for investors. Placing our societal well-being and community life at risk, legalization was prioritized over decriminalization. Like putting lipstick on a pig, the legalization legislation was disguised as a path to social justice and promoted as a way to level the playing field and bring equity and equality among our people.
The contortions that members of our Legislature have gone through to force legalization into our state is almost as depressing to me as their complete contempt for the Black and brown people who still – until this week, three years later – are arrested at three to four times the rate of whites for the same small amount offenses. Three years of carnival tricks and deception. And not the slightest hint of unease or apology about the lives ruined in the meantime – the men and women with criminal records that have left them unable to obtain decent work, a living wage, proper housing, loans, and a host of other barriers to a fresh start and a fair chance to pursue their dreams.
New Jersey now stands at the precipice of enacting a law that will permeate our society on every level. We know from other states that family and community life will be affected, as well as public health, public safety and highway safety. Business productivity will be impacted, as will liability, insurance rates and claims, workers’ compensation and litigation. And nowhere will be more impacted than the economically vulnerable Black, brown, minority and urban communities already burdened by decades upon decades of neglect and abuse.
These are just a few of the reasons why I implore my fellow lawmakers to proceed with extreme caution and conscientiousness. It was reckless, and I believe hostile, to the people of our state for a 216-page legalization bill to be dropped on a Friday for committee hearing the following Monday. Luckily, outcry from cooler heads including minority legislators and civil rights groups has slowed the pace for now. But what are we trying to hide by pushing this through without a proper chance for public discourse? Taking the time to initiate a racial impact study will help us get it right for every segment of our population.
Some people ask me why I would continue this call to action after three years of shouting into the wind. The answer is that I love our state and the people who live here. And because the last 34 years have proved that members of the New Jersey Legislative Black Caucus and the New Jersey Legislative Latino Caucus are not subordinate but are co-equal policymakers with our non-minority colleagues and the governor. Our voice and actions, in collaboration with our civil rights and faith-based coalition partners, are our best hope to propel New Jersey into a just and equitable future. And we refuse to leave anyone behind.
“Justice delayed is justice denied.”