On Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, voters in New Jersey chose to approve a constitutional amendment legalizing marijuana possession and sale. But revising the criminal code for drug charges is only the beginning. There are many questions left unanswered by the simple ballot measure, including what happens to those with marijuana-related offenses on their criminal record.
The most important thing to keep in mind is that the referendum does not, in fact, change the law. Until further notice, the possession and sale of marijuana in New Jersey are still against the law. And in the meantime, police can be expected to arrest an estimated 100 people per day, according to NJ.com.
The ballot measure puts a renewed onus on the state officials to finally approve a bill decriminalizing the substance or write a new one officially declaring it legal to buy, sell and possess marijuana. Gov. Phil Murphy has been trying to do this since he first took office in 2017 and has yet to make any headway.
The new bill should include rules addressing those who have marijuana-related offenses on their criminal record. These offenses, sometimes the only thing on such records, hinder the ability to get good-paying jobs, find housing, and obtain higher education.
New Jersey has several options for how it can address this issue, including:
- Do nothing. It can leave the offenses on the records, reasoning that it was illegal at the time.
- Allow expungement of the offense. NJ can alter expungement rules to allow a person to petition to specifically clear marijuana offenses from his/her record even if he/she is not otherwise eligible for an expungement.
- Automatically scrub the offense. State officials can pass a law mandating that all or most marijuana offenses be cleared from state criminal records.
It’s worth noting that even if the legislature opts to do nothing regarding a past marijuana offense, a person may still be eligible to have his/her record expunged if he/she meets the eligibility requirements.
Besides figuring out what to do with past convictions, the measure also leaves unaddressed the question of how to regulate dispensaries. This includes issues with business licensing, and what happens to those who sell marijuana without a license.