NJ Gov. Signs Legal Pot Bills After ‘Bungled’ Process By Bill Wichert

Posted on February 23rd, 2021


Law360 (February 22, 2021, 12:43 PM EST)

New Jersey Gov. Phil Murphy on Monday signed legislation to set up an adult-use recreational marijuana market in the Garden State, ending what one state senator had called a “bungled” process as the governor and legislators tussled for months over the consequences for underage possession of cannabis items.

The Democratic governor took that historic step after the Democrat-led state Legislature on Monday approved a so-called cleanup bill aimed at securing his signature on two separate bills that were passed in December to establish a regulated marketplace for selling adult-use recreational marijuana and to decriminalize the possession of up to six ounces of the drug.

Near the start of a Monday briefing on the state’s ongoing response to the COVID-19 pandemic, Murphy said he had signed the three bills and acknowledged that “this process has taken much longer than anticipated.”

“But certainly it is better to get things done right than fast and to ensure that all voices are heard and all views are considered,” Murphy said. “This process may have had its fits and starts, but it is ending in the right place and I firmly believe this process has ended in laws that will serve as a national model.”

The enactment of the legislation comes more than three months after Garden State voters in November approved by a more than two-thirds majority a state constitutional amendment legalizing cannabis for adult use, which took effect Jan. 1. Supporters of legalization have stressed the need to end marijuana arrests that have disproportionately affected people of color.

The marketplace bill will allow consumers 21 years and older to buy marijuana for personal use from licensed businesses, and it outlines provisions for taxing cannabis products. A commission tasked with overseeing the state’s current medical cannabis program will also oversee the recreational market, which will likely not be up and running until at least 2022.

The decriminalization bill will enable the possession of up to six ounces of marijuana or up to 170 grams of hashish without any criminal or civil penalties, and it will lead to reforms aimed at bringing social justice to communities hurt by the war on drugs.

But those bills are seemingly at odds when it comes to underage possession. While the decriminalization bill allows for small amounts of marijuana, the marketplace bill subjects underage individuals to disorderly persons offenses.

Murphy refused to sign the bills unless changes were made to the provisions dealing with the consequences for underage possession. Lawmakers attempted to make revisions through cleanup legislation, but such measures struggled to garner enough support until Monday’s voting sessions.

“Sixty-six percent of the voters of New Jersey spoke loudly and clearly that they want to legalize … recreational marijuana and they turned it over to this administration and this Legislature to put the process in place,” Sen. Paul Sarlo, D-Bergen, said during the Senate’s voting session.

But the administration and the Legislature “bungled this process,” Sarlo added.

Among other provisions, the cleanup legislation enacted Monday will eliminate the disorderly persons clauses in the marketplace bill and establish a three-tier warning system for underage possession or consumption of alcohol or cannabis items.

The bill also will allow for law enforcement officers to be charged with the crime of official deprivation of civil rights for “knowingly” committing violations related to underage possession or consumption of alcohol or cannabis items, such as for “requesting that a person consent to a search who is not capable of giving lawful consent.”

Noting that the bill was the result of much debate and compromise, Sen. Nicholas Scutari, D-Union — the principal architect of the state’s marijuana legalization effort — told his colleagues that “nothing is ever perfect” and “let’s not let the pursuit of the perfect be the enemy of the good.” The bill is “the best we’re going to get at this point in time.”

“I believe that the underage provisions in here offer appropriate protections for our young people … and keeping them out of the criminal justice system, again freeing up law enforcement and our judicial system to do the much more important items than dealing with marijuana claims, arrests,” Scutari said during the voting session.

As for the provisions related to police misconduct, Scutari added that “much of what’s in this bill today already exists in law.” He acknowledged that the legislation expands the type of victims who could bring the civil rights claims.

But Sen. Robert W. Singer, R-Ocean, argued that the bill “criminalizes police,” suggesting that officers will be afraid to stop underage individuals. He also blasted how the proposed warning system effectively leaves them without any consequences for using alcohol or cannabis items.

“This is absolutely in my mind a way to say, if you want to smoke marijuana if you’re underage, you can, if you want to drink if you’re underage, you can, and there’s no consequence for your actions,” Singer said.

During the Assembly voting session, assemblywoman Holly T. Schepisi, R-Bergen, echoed that point and expressed concern about “creating a culture for our children that essentially is giving them passes to go engage in bad behavior.”

“This bill…is just going to drag all of our youth, regardless of color, into the gutter,” Schepisi added.

Assemblywoman Mila Jasey, D-Essex, later countered that “possession convictions have destroyed lives” and said “it has been argued that passage of this bill will result in underage use with impunity because law enforcement will refuse to act.” The stark reality is “that enforcement power has always been disproportionately applied in communities of color,” she said.

“We cannot allow our fear of adverse consequences to outweigh the disastrous consequences of what has already occurred and, make no mistake, these consequences have fallen squarely upon the very young people who some are so stridently arguing must be protected,” Jasey said.

–Editing by Alyssa Miller.

Update: This article has been updated with additional information on the cleanup bill.