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The debate on cannabis legalization in New Jersey now centers of questions of equal justice. Throughout the state, minorities have been twice as likely to face arrest for marijuana possession as whites, despite similar rates of use.

That has meant a disproportionate hit for some communities, including fines or even jail time, with continued barriers for those seeking jobs, student loans, and even housing — records that can follow individuals for the rest of their lives.

“Not only is it a matter of legalization and enforcement, it's a racial justice issue. That's something that's incredibly important for the public to understand,” said Amol Sinha, the executive director of the New Jersey chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU).

Some legalization supporters hope to make some amends, including easing the way for those convicted under the former law to clear their records.

Democratic New Jersey Assemblywoman Annette Quijano feels confident her colleagues will approve her bill to legalize the possession and use of cannabis by adults. She's one of the sponsors of A4497, the New Jersey regulatory and Expungement Aid Modernization Act, which matches a bill making its way through the state Senate.

Quijano sees clearing the record for those convicted under the current law as a vital part of any legalization bill. Quijano said social justice is the primary purpose of her bill, saying any other benefits of legalization would be secondary.

“People should not have to carry a scarlet letter or stigma for something that is now legal,” she wrote in an emailed response to questions about the bill. “If you have been charged in the past with something that will be, hopefully, legal with the passage of this legislation, you would be eligible for expungement.”

Quijano, a deputy majority leader for the General Assembly, said her bill “will absolutely pass” when it comes up for a vote, possibly in early 2019. Democratic Gov. Phil Murphy campaigned on legalizing cannabis, among other issues, and with a Democratic majority in the Assembly and state Senate, most expect the bill to eventually reach his desk for signature.

Some analysts have seen expungement clauses in other states as a stumbling block to legalization, but Quijano sees it as the linchpin for the legalization bill in New Jersey.

“Personally, I think it is the single most important aspect of legalization,” she said. “New Jersey has the benefit of looking at how other states have legalized cannabis, taking the best elements of their approaches and making it better. New Jersey will be only the second state to legalize adult use cannabis through the legislative process, and we have had a wide racial disparity in the enforcement and sentencing of cannabis prohibition. I would not support legalization without expungement of records.”

“Unequal and Unfair: New Jersey's War on Marijuana Users,” a report released in May 2017 by the New Jersey ACLU, found the number of arrests for marijuana possession has increased in recent years and that racial disparities in those arrests reached an all-time high in 2013. The report found that blacks were three times more likely to be arrested for possession than whites throughout the state, even though statistics show the levels of use are similar.

A courthouse is shown in Essex County, New Jersey. State lawmakers are considering whether to expunge criminal records of individuals convicted for marijuana-related offenses.

In one town, Point Pleasant Beach, the report found that blacks were more than 30 times more likely to be arrested on possession charges than whites.

“When we issued that report last year, the idea behind it was that we needed to call attention to the impact of the war on drugs on communities,” Sinha said.

In its report, the civil-rights group called for the legalization, taxation, and regulation of adult-use marijuana, similar to the bill now under consideration in Trenton. The report also asked the state attorney general to investigate the cause of racial disparities throughout the criminal justice system.

As Sinha sees it, the adult-use bill under consideration is not perfect, but is a big step in the right direction, including the language on record expungement.

“I'm happy the lawmakers are thinking about it,” he said. “I think there's room for improvement.”

His organization advocated for an automatic expungement of all marijuana convictions. But he said the state does not have the resources in place to make that happen.

“We realize it may take us a long time to get there,” Sinha said. “In lieu of that, an expedited expungement is our best bet.”

Under current New Jersey law, it is possible to expunge certain convictions from someone's record, including convictions connected to marijuana. But as Sinha explained, it is a long and cumbersome process involving several agencies. There are costs involved, he said, and if someone hires an attorney to take care of the matter, those costs can skyrocket.

Quijano and other legislators backing the current bill want to make the process a lot easier. If her bill becomes law, she said, the process for expungement for cannabis-related charges will be dramatically different.

“For example, online expungement would be free to the applicant,” she said. “Second, expungement will be an expedited process for people who were convicted of crimes that would be legal under this legislation. The goal is to create a state-of-the-art electronic filing system to facilitate expungements, and an advertising campaign in multiple languages to make sure people know expungement is available.”

“I hope it's the dawn of a new trend. That's great news as far as I'm concerned,” said Adam Scavone, a Chicago-based attorney who has worked on expungement cases for young clients. In some states, he said, the law makes no provision for the expungement of records. When Colorado and Oregon approved adult-use bills, changes to the expungement process were not included in the law. This year, California eased the path for expungement for cannabis convictions, with a bill approved over summer 2018, years after voters passed Proposition 64.

“I would rather start the discussions with this included rather than try to add it at a later date,” Scavone said, describing it as an issue of fairness.

“The war on drugs, with regard to marijuana, is a failure,” Quijano said. “That failure has resulted in a disproportionate number of black and brown people whose lives have been ruined as a result of being exposed to the criminal justice system, for the crime of possessing a small amount of a substance that evidence suggests is no more harmful than alcohol.”

The ACLU's Sinha said he's seen a major change in New Jersey's consideration of cannabis issues, moving from an almost exclusive concentration on the potential economic benefits to increasing discussion of the social justice impact of a potential vote.

“The ACLU and other organizations like us have been banging this drum for a long time,” he said. “I'm glad someone has listened.”

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