New Jersey legalizes cannabis after years of failed efforts and toxic negotiations

This photo shows Governor Phil Murphy when he signed legislation to establish a recreational marijuana market. | Edwin J. Torres / AP Photo

New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy finally delivered on a 2017 campaign promise when he signed legislation Monday that legalizes cannabis for adults, decriminalizes the possession of up to six ounces of the drug, and codifies criminal justice reforms that will change the the way police officers interact with underage criminals. .

Despite New Jersey’s deep blue political backdrop and strong tail winds in support of the Reagan-era drug policy relaxation, Murphy, a progressive Democrat, came close to rejecting the measures.

Adult use is endorsed by the state’s two most powerful legislators, and three months ago, 67 percent of the state’s voters backed a constitutional amendment that says New Jerseyans 21 and older should be able to sell and consume cannabis.

Even so, New Jersey’s three-year odyssey toward a regulated cannabis market nearly stalled due to disagreements between Murphy, leading Democrats, and leaders of the Black and Latino legislatures on how to penalize children who have been caught with a loose joint.

“There is no one who has supported these efforts who does not recognize that this process has taken much longer than anticipated, but it is certainly better to do things right rather than quickly,” Murphy said during a news conference Monday, thanking Legislators Democrats who “kept working and talking even when things stopped.”

Murphy’s comments came an hour after the noon deadline to take action on a legalization measure. NJ A21 (20R) and a decriminalization bill NJ A1897 (20R), which were posted to his desk on December 17. It wasn’t until the Legislature passed a third bill Monday morning addressing penalties for minors. NJ A5342 (20R)/NJ S3454 (20R) – with only 20 minutes to spare – that Murphy put his signature on all three.

Thus, New Jersey became the 15th state to approve cannabis for recreational purposes.

“This process may have had its ups and downs, but it is ending in the right place,” said the governor.

The “right place” is not liked by almost everyone involved.

“Nobody is happy and nothing is perfect. And let’s not let the pursuit of the perfect be the enemy of the good, ”said Senator Nicholas Scutari (D-Union), lead sponsor of the cannabis bills, shortly before the upper house voted, 12-23, to send the bill. to the governor. “This is an issue that we must leave behind.”

The lengthy debate over juvenile penalties paralyzed the Legislature. The Assembly twice delayed scheduled quorums to provide more leads for negotiations, frustrating lawmakers who thought they had finished working on cannabis legislation when they sent legalization and decriminalization bills to Murphy in December.

Although Murphy’s team had worked closely with lawmakers on the legalization and decriminalization bills, it wasn’t until after their passage that administration officials discovered inconsistencies in the legislation that they interpreted as legalizing cannabis for children. .

Under the legalization bill, those under the age of 21 caught with less than 1 ounce of cannabis could be charged with a misdemeanor offense of disorderly conduct. But the decriminalization bill removed penalties for those under 21 who are caught in possession of marijuana, a term that would only apply to illicit products.

Some in the Legislature insisted those decisions were deliberate, noting that they would discourage police interactions within minority communities where drug laws are disproportionately enforced. Murphy responded by telling reporters that “no one, including yours, has ever talked about the legalization of marijuana, recreational marijuana for children. That has never been on the cards. “

Shortly before the New Year, the administration requested that lawmakers pass a third “cleanup” bill that would clarify penalties for minors, prompting more than two months of intense negotiations that collapsed repeatedly as the state’s Democratic leaders struggled to reach consensus on how to discourage underage drug use without being overly punitive.

In early February, when conversations rocked, Murphy was preparing conditional vetoes for the legalization and decriminalization bills, a move that would have destroyed one of his most important policy initiatives and further alienated him from Democrats in the Legislature.

It wasn’t until the end of last week that Senate Democrats began to reach consensus on the language that would save the legalization campaign.

Under the adopted language, minors found in possession of cannabis and alcohol would be subject to an ever-increasing series of formal warnings that could culminate in a referral to a community organization for counseling or other services.

Additionally, law enforcement officials could be found guilty of depriving residents of their civil rights if they are found to have violated new rules governing underage possession. The smell of cannabis or alcohol will no longer be enough to justify a search. The same applies to the “undisclosed possession” of an alcoholic beverage, marijuana, hashish or article of cannabis, according to the text of the bill.

“When people paled at the idea that it was all about recreation money and talked about the idea that it was about social equity and activism, this was our collective opportunity, all of us, to put words into action,” said Sen Troy Singleton (D-Burlington), who played a key role in crafting the compromise measure. “This is how many of the principles of this cleanup bill were framed.”

While the cleanup bill drew adequate support in the Senate, some lawmakers held their noses while voting “yes.”

Republicans strongly opposed the bill and the powerful New Jersey Police Benevolent Association called it “anti-police.” Meanwhile, some of the state’s top black lawmakers, including Black Legislative Caucus Chairman Ron Rice and Senator Nia Gill (both Democrats from Essex), said the legislation didn’t go far enough to hold police accountable. .

“We screwed up this process.” Senator Paul Sarlo (D-Bergen) said during Monday’s debate. “Before the legislation is signed, we are making our first cleanup bill.”

Still, lawmakers and administration officials expressed relief Monday that New Jersey had finally, conclusively, suspended the legislation Murphy had anticipated signing more than three years ago within the first 100 days of his term.

While the work in the Legislature is largely done, Scutari said more cleanup legislation is likely, New Jersey is still several months away from seeing its first legal cannabis sale.

Certain provisions of the decriminalization bill went into effect immediately, a cold comfort to the thousands of New Jerseyans who have been arrested for possession since the constitutional amendment was passed on November 3, but implementing the legalization measure will take at least six months, Murphy said Monday.

The newly formed Cannabis Regulatory Commission, tasked with overseeing both adult use and medical marijuana markets, needs to develop rules that dictate the distribution of dispensary and grow licenses.

Licensing will come on its own schedule, and while existing medical dispensaries can sell recreational products under the new law, they don’t have enough supply to meet the needs of the state’s 100,000 registered patients.

Whatever economic boom New Jersey officials might have hoped for as the first adult-use market between Washington, DC, and Boston, it probably won’t materialize for years. And even then, when lawmakers in New York, Connecticut, and Rhode Island launch their own proposals to legalize recreational marijuana, any benefits New Jersey makes can be muted.

“We’ve gone too far without any action and, look at the numbers, we’ve lost the opportunity to create jobs, we’ve lost income,” Ed DeVeaux of the CannaBusiness Association of New Jersey said in a late interview. last week, adding that a reported 6,000 People have been arrested for cannabis since New Jerseyans voted to legalize the drug in November. “We have continued to hurt people.”

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