As the Garden State moves closer to a legal adult-use market for recreational marijuana, New Jersey lawmakers have expressed their support for what's being promoted as the "most progressive decriminalization bill in the country" related to cannabis possession and distribution.

Advanced Monday by the Senate Judiciary Committee is a bill that would stop treating possession of up to six ounces as a crime. Distribution of up to one ounce, outside of a licensed business, would carry a civil penalty for the first defense, and a fourth-degree crime for any subsequent offenses.

Under the bill sponsored by Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, all pending cases that fall under those parameters would be dismissed.

"Not only are we decriminalizing possession but also first offenses for low-level distribution, a move which will offer individuals a second chance and ensure they do not become entangled in the system the first time they are caught selling small quantities of marijuana," Ruiz said.

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Her legislation, introduced in June, originally aimed to decriminalize marijuana possession and distribution of a pound or less.

The language of Ruiz's revised bill has not yet been released on the Office of Legislative Services website, but a press release notes that the bill would create a new form of virtual expungement for "certain marijuana and hashish offenses." In addition, any charge, arrest or conviction related to certain offenses "would be deemed not to have occurred." Under the bill, all records relating to unlawful acts of weed possession or distribution would be sealed.

"The bill would also increase penalties for wrongfully disseminating information related to expunged records," Ruiz said.

New Jersey residents on Nov. 3 voted in favor of a constitutional change that would allow for the recreational use of marijuana. While enabling legislation is advancing and the framework of the market is being crafted, individuals in the state can still be arrested.

"Decriminalizing minor marijuana offenses will do away with unnecessary arrests and unfair legal penalties," said Senate President Steve Sweeney. "Combined with the adult-use cannabis legalization plan approved by the voters, New Jersey will move forward with significant criminal and social justice reforms in the forefront.”

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