A New Jersey General Assembly panel approved on Monday a bill that would lower the penalty for possessing a small amount of marijuana to a mere $150 fine for first-time offenders, essentially decriminalizing the drug by making possession a non-arrest offense.

But Gov. Chris Christie (R), who's supported drug reforms in the past, has refused to take a position on it, with an aide telling Raw Story on Monday that he won't be commenting on the proposal any time soon.

Current New Jersey law requires a fine of $1,000 and up to six months in jail for individuals charged with minor marijuana possession. Under the bill approved for consideration by the full Assembly on Monday, getting caught with up to 15 grams of pot would be more akin to receiving a traffic ticket, with second and third offenses triggering escalating fines but no arrest.

Sponsored by Assemblyman and deputy majority leader Reed Gusciora (D), the bill represents the most viable push toward sentencing reform the state has seen in a generation.

"This bill would put us in line with neighboring states like Connecticut and New York, which recently decriminalized marijuana possession," Gusciora said in a statement. "The bill recognizes the realities of our current drug laws, which are overly punitive for marijuana and taxing on our criminal justice system."

Still, it's not clear if the bill will make it out of a debate by the full assembly. But with Democrats in command of majorities in both the state's general assembly and senate, it could pass without even a single vote of support from Republicans -- except Gov. Christie, that is, whose veto would condemn the decriminalization bill to failure.

There is hope that he will listen, however.

Christie launched an initiative last year that expanded the state's drug courts and drug treatment options for repeat non-violent drug offenders. Markedly similar to bills were put forward by Democratic lawmakers in the last session, and many of them praised Christie for his support -- all of which would seem to indicate the governor's willingness to work across the aisle on drug reforms.

He's also been publicly supportive of medical marijuana, even though that bill was signed into law by his predecessor, Gov. Jon Corzine (D). After initially delaying implementation of New Jersey's medical marijuana statutes, Christie backed off, saying that he did not believe the federal government would prosecute state workers for licensing marijuana dispensaries.

Despite his eventual approval of medical marijuana, New Jersey has what's widely believed to be the most restrictive regulatory allowance for the drug, and Christie has said he'd like for it to be even tougher to obtain.

New Jersey, which has seen its budget grow from $13 billion to $30 billion in the last 11 years, was facing a mounting debt of more than $38 billion at the end of 2011, driven up -- not down -- by Christie's policies. Proponents of marijuana decriminalization say it saves taxpayers money by reducing the burden on the criminal justice system while boosting state revenues through increased ticketing of drug offenders.

Gusciora was not available for comment.


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