New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed legislation on February 22 making New Jersey the latest state to legalize marijuana for recreational use, but it is expected to take up to a year before dispensaries will begin selling cannabis to the public. The Democratic governor signed a package of three bills after voters overwhelmingly approved a ballot question in November to legalize adult use of the drug. The enactment came more than three years after Murphy campaigned for governor on the promise to make recreational use legal in the state. Legalization was delayed by political opposition within the state legislature, even though members of Murphy’s own party control both houses.“New Jersey’s broken & indefensible marijuana laws are no more,” Murphy said on Twitter.
New Jersey Governor Murphy signed into law bills that allow possession of up to six ounces of marijuana by people age 21 or older. Distribution and growing cannabis without a license remains illegal. The legislation, passed earlier on Monday by the Assembly and Senate, also eased penalties for minors’ possession of marijuana. New Jersey now joins more than a dozen other states, including other East Coast states of Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts, in legalizing cannabis for recreational use. Dozens of states permit marijuana to be used by patients suffering a variety of medical conditions.
The move is expected to boost New Jersey’s pandemic-stricken economy by launching a for-profit cannabis industry that should generate millions of tax dollars for the state. Recreational sales at state-licensed dispensaries, however, may be as much as a year away. “We can get down to the business of establishing a responsible, sustainable, profitable and diverse adult-use and expanded medical cannabis market in New Jersey,” Edmund DeVeaux, head of the New Jersey CannaBusiness Association, said in a statement. “We can stop the senseless arrests for possession and use of a product that should have never been criminalized in the first place, and the voters approved over three months ago,” he said.
New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy and legislators in the State Senate for months stood at an impasse over underage penalties. While the legalization bill made youth possession of marijuana purchased on the legal market a petty disorderly person’s offense, the decriminalization bill provided no penalties for possession of marijuana purchased on the black market. The cleanup measure subjects all underage users to a graduated system of written warnings that would see users’ parents notified on a second offense and see them referred to community-based treatment or counseling groups on the third violation. Underage alcohol offenses would be subject to those same penalties. “Although this process has taken longer than anticipated, I believe it is ending in the right place and will ultimately serve as a national model,” the governor said.
The standstill threatened political fallout over one of the governor’s chief 2017 campaign promises just as he moved into his re-election campaign. It is still likely to play a part in this year’s gubernatorial race, despite legalization winning overwhelming support at the polls last November. “Raising children these days is hard enough without politicians making it even harder,” Republican gubernatorial candidate Jack Ciattarelli said on Twitter. “Today’s decision by Trenton Democrats to prohibit police officers from even asking questions to a car full of underage kids who appear to be smoking weed is outrageous.”
The cleanup bill, which cleared the Senate in a 22-9 vote with some opposition from democratic lawmakers, including Legislative Black Caucus Chairman Ron Rice (D-Newark) who voted against the bill because it did not eliminate qualified immunity related to marijuana offenses, lowers the bar to criminally charge police who illegally search minors for marijuana by removing a requirement that the search is predicated on an individual’s protected class, like race, religion or age, among others. The measure also bars local governments from enacting their own civil penalties for marijuana offenses and requires the state Attorney General to review police body camera footage from marijuana incidents, including underage users.
The standstill upended other legislative business as the Assembly was forced to cancel a February 8 quorum and a February 17 voting session that would have made the legalization and decriminalization bills law without Governor Phil Murphy’s signature. Those postponements prevented lawmakers in the lower chamber from introducing new legislation and effectively canceled a slew of committee meetings on unrelated legislation over the past two weeks. Marijuana arrests continued in the interim, despite guidance from Attorney General Gurbir Grewal that directed prosecutors to halt all cases solely involving marijuana charges, but those will stop now that marijuana use is decriminalized.