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New Jersey Expected to Approve Marijuana Bill After Recent Collapse

by Natalie Tsur
new jersey marijuana bill 2021

The deal to enact a legal marijuana bill in New Jersey collapsed Jan. 8 upon opposition over penalties for underage use. Even though the proposal seems to have reached an impasse, Gov. Phil Murphy remains optimistic an agreement can be made between himself and lawmakers, officials say.

New Jersey residents already voted “Yes” on the referendum on Nov. 3 to authorize the legal use of marijuana, which then went into effect Jan. 1. Legislators now need to vote on a comprehensive framework to effectively legalize personal use of the drug, decriminalize it and remove it from the Schedule I drug list. 

Tensions arose, however, over Murphy’s efforts to impose penalties on those under the age of 21. Until this is resolved, the use of recreational marijuana is not yet legal in New Jersey.

Murphy responded to the discrepancy during a news conference on Jan. 11, saying he’s “still optimistic we’re going to figure something out.” Then, following this, he comments, “we’ve got to somehow thread the needle” to address all concerns.

Murphy is still expected to sign the New Jersey legal marijuana bill (S21) and decriminalization bill (S2535) sent to him in December. Lawmakers were waiting for him to approve them before Jan. 1, but the governor insisted there be “technical but important” changes made first. He then recommended a set of fines for those under 21 found in possession of the drug. 

Sources told Patch that lawmakers abandoned the new “cleanup bill” because the penalties were deemed too harsh for minors charged with marijuana possession. Democratic Sen. Teresa Ruiz, D-Essex, told Politico that the Legislature’s original intent was to remove penalties for underage offenders. 

Ruiz and Sen. Nicholas Scutari were both lead sponsors in the policy, but pulled their support claiming they have no intention to move forward with the measure so long as Murphy’s penalties are in place. The Murphy administration has clarified the governor will not sign a bill until those penalties for illegal use are outlined in a “cleanup bill.” 

According to Patch, the “cleanup bill” administers the following:

  • Anyone between the ages of 18 and 20 in possession of any marijuana or cannabis item in any school, motor vehicle or public place could be fined between $50 and $250.
  • Anyone between the ages of 18 and 20 who possesses marijuana or cannabis and knowingly consumed the drug in any school, motor vehicle or public place would be fined an amount between $100 and $500.
  • Minors under the age of 18 in possession of marijuana or cannabis would not be subject to a civil penalty. Rather, they would be given a curbside warning or “stationhouse adjustment,” allowing law enforcement agencies to resolve a violation without formal court proceedings. This may also require minors to participate in an alcohol or drug abuse education or treatment program.
  • The stationhouse adjustment would establish one or more conditions that the person would be required to meet in exchange for the law enforcement agency declining to pursue a formal delinquency complaint.

These changes only came after the bills passed, when Murphy’s team raised concerns surrounding underage possession. One of the most critical and controversial adjustments he advocated for is the curbside warning from law enforcement officers.

In an interview with Politico, Rice claimed that this policy solution would only introduce another form of “stop-and-frisk,” endangering Black youth and contradicting one of the many foundational purposes of the bill.

“The section of the bill they changed, that talks about curbside and stationhouse adjustment, that’s a modern-day version of stop-and-frisk,” said Rice. “It was offensive to many members of the Black Caucus … so we thought he should sign the bill we sent to him.”

Scutari agreed with Rice, echoing that this bill would only cause harm to communities of color. Before the ballot measure was voted on, Murphy had expressed his motives for legalizing the drug, suggesting its potential racial, social and economic impacts:

A recent ACLU report found that New Jersey ranked 11th in the country for the highest rate of arrests of Black people for marijuana possession in 2018. The same report noted that New Jersey saw an incline of almost 50 percent in its marijuana possession arrest rate between 2010 and 2018.

The initial draft of the bill did not articulate funding for communities affected by the drug war, which was considered a major oversight amongst social and racial justice activists. These groups demanded the revenue collected from the cannabis tax be directed toward restorative programs. 

The Senate and Assembly have since added fees that direct tax dollars to certain communities of color, yet the two chambers were at odds. The Senate proposed to allocate 70 percent of revenue to community programs such as health care, legal aid and mentoring and tutoring. They also included a Social Equity Excise Fee levied on cannabis growers. The Assembly, however, has proposed a version of the bill which only directs the tax on growers to fund these programs.

Still, the issue of decriminalization remains. Full Legislature has not yet passed the proposed bill to decriminalize possession without harsh penalties or those without racially-targeted undertones. This ideal bill would further bring racial and social justice to the forefront of the law, directly responding to the disproportionate number of arrests amongst racial and ethnic groups.

“In the 11th hour, the governor has proposed legislation that will disproportionately and unfairly hurt communities of color,” state Assemblyman Jamel Holley, D-Union, who sponsored the bill, said in a statement. “The governor can’t hold legislation hostage in an effort to further target over-policed communities and place a de facto tax on poor people whose children may suffer from drug abuse and addiction. This proposal is regressive, draconian and ethically perverse.”

New Jerseyans are now relying on Murphy to implement legislation to decriminalize the drug in order to effectively bring unjust cannabis-related arrests to a halt. 

A spokesperson from the Murphy team has declined to say whether he will veto or sign the New Jersey legalization bill. Until then, it is assumed that delays in legislative action will consequently heighten numbers in charges under the current New Jersey Marijuana laws.

Main Photo by Add Weed

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