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New Jersey Lawmakers Approve Clean-Up Marijuana Bill To Resolve Governor’s Underage Concerns

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A New Jersey Assembly committee on Friday approved a “clean up” bill intended to clear the way to implement the legalization of marijuana—the latest development on lawmakers’ rocky path to enact the cannabis referendum voters approved in November.

Enabling legislation to create a regulated market was introduced and passed by the legislature shortly after last year’s vote, but Gov. Phil Murphy (D) said after the fact that opposed the lack of penalties for underage possession. Lawmakers attempted to resolve that with an earlier bill to address the youth possession issue, but a floor vote was cancelled after key legislators pulled their support.

Now, it seems, there could be a new compromise.

Under the latest proposal, adults 18 to 20 would face a $50 fine for possession of up to one ounce of cannabis, and a $100 fine for more than that amount. Those under 18 would not not be subject to the civil penalty but would be given a warning.

These are lower penalties compared to the last compromise bill, and the new version seems to have to support of advocates such as the ACLU of New Jersey. But its fate in the full Assembly, the Senate and at Murphy’s desk are not clear at this point.

The new legislation would also form a task force charged with making recommendations to the governor and lawmakers on “law enforcement activities to address the enforcement of underage possession or consumption of marijuana, hashish, or cannabis items, as well as the broader issue of underage possession or consumption of these substances.”

The ACLU said that the panel’s creation “lays the groundwork for future reforms, providing a clearer look into how enforcement is carried out in practice. If racial disparities persist—we’ll know.”

The Assembly committee vote could provide a lifeline to other marijuana reform legislation that’s been transmitted to Murphy—namely, a bill to implement legal marijuana sales and a separate decriminalization measure that he threatened to conditionally veto if lawmakers were unable to reach an agreement on revised legislation by Friday.

The governor’s deadline to sign the legislation is currently expected to be February 8, which is the next time the Assembly is set to hold a quorum, but it could be earlier than that if legislative leaders move the schedule up.

In addition to the revised penalties for underage cannabis offenses, the new bill also stipulates that the odor of marijuana alone “shall not constitute reasonable articulable suspicion to initiate a search of a person” by law enforcement.

The Assembly Community Development and Affairs Committee approved the proposal in a 4-2 vote on Friday. It now heads to the full floor for consideration.


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Legislators who opposed the previous clean up bill over concerns that it would disproportionately affect youth of color aren’t necessarily celebrating the revised version, as it seems to simply water down penalties for young people that were included in the earlier legislation. That version would have imposed fines of up to $500 for adults 18 to 20 who unlawfully possess marijuana and warnings or mandatory drug treatment programs for those under 18.

“Many issues that I think we missed, unfortunately, came back,” Assemblyman Benjie Wimberly (D), sponsor of the new bill, told NJ.com. But the proposal is consistent with “what the voters of New Jersey asked for when we came to this, but protecting our youth,” he said.

Murphy said during a press briefing on Wednesday that there “are two principles that have guided us on this, other than we got to support it as a general matter for social justice reasons.”

“The two principles are—which I’ve stated earlier many times—number one, the last thing any of us want is our kids getting tied up in the criminal justice system, especially kids of color,” he said. “And secondly, the voters voted to legalize adult use marijuana. It said it right on the referendum, 21 and up, that’s always been the case.”

“Getting both of those principles respected is not an easy process and that’s what we’re trying to do,” the governor added. “I thank the legislators who are working really hard with us to try to get that.”

In a separate legislative development this week, Sen. Gerry Cardinale (R) filed a bill to legalize home cultivation of marijuana, something that’s not currently allowed under the referendum implementation legislation on Murphy’s desk.

The governor pledged in a State of the State address earlier this month that the state is “on the verge of passing an innovative and groundbreaking set of laws to reform our historically unjust approach to marijuana and cannabis.”

Meanwhile, public crime data shows that, at least in New Jersey’s largest city of Newark, police are continuing to make busts for cannabis possession, despite the November vote and despite a call by the state attorney general for prosecutors to suspend low-level marijuana cases.

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Photo courtesy of Mike Latimer.

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