TRENTON — Democrats and Republicans on the Assembly Judiciary Committee have found common ground on a bill decriminalizing possession of as much as a half-ounce of marijuana, voting unanimously Monday to forward it to the full chamber.
The committee’s five Democrats and two Republicans heard almost uniformly supportive testimony for about an hour before the vote.
If passed by both houses of the Legislature and signed into law by the governor, the measure would downgrade possession of as much as 35 marijuana cigarettes and drug paraphernalia, making both civil offenses punishable by fines of $100 to $500. Offenders who are under 18 and those with multiple infractions would be referred for drug counseling.
“The time has come to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana,” Assemblyman Peter Barnes III, chairman of the committee and a Democratic sponsor of the legislation, said during the hearing.
The bill has the backing of 15 Democratic and three Republican co-sponsors.
Christie’s office said the governor had not taken a position on the legislation.
He has spoken passionately in recent weeks about a proposal to require mandatory drug treatment, rather than jail, for nonviolent drug offenders, arguing that addiction is a disease best treated by methods other than incarceration. However, the administration has stalled on implementing New Jersey’s medical marijuana law, which was signed before Christie became governor and worried the former federal prosecutor as potentially too permissive.
The Senate version of the decriminalization bill, introduced Thursday, has not had a hearing.
The law would bring New Jersey’s marijuana laws more in line with its neighbors. New York and Connecticut are among more than a dozen states that have decriminalized possession of the drug.
“We strongly support this bill. Our support is echoed by a majority of New Jerseyans,” Roseanne Scotti, state director of the Drug Policy Alliance, a drug policy-reform group, said in reference to a 2011 Rutgers-Eagleton poll. Just more than half of those surveyed said pot possession should not be penalized at all, and a third said they would legalize its sale and use.
Bruce Hummer, spokesman for the New Jersey Prevention Network, a public health agency, was among the few opponents to testify.
He said marijuana is a gateway drug and decriminalizing it sends a mixed message to children and teenagers.
“This current bill, if passed, will demonstrate clear acceptance of marijuana use by the community,” he told the panel. “Research and history have shown this increasingly lenient view of marijuana will be devastating to our youth.”