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New Jersey Lawmakers’ Marijuana Talks Break Down Months After Voters Approve Legalization

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Following weeks of negotiations with the governor, a top New Jersey lawmaker said on Wednesday that he is abandoning revised compromise legislation to implement marijuana regulations in the state.

It’s been more than three months since New Jersey voters approved an adult-use cannabis legalization referendum. In December, lawmakers sent Gov. Phil Murphy (D) a pair of bills to implement legal sales and decriminalize possession, but a dispute with the governor over his desire to see penalties instituted for underage people has stalled the process.

There have been repeated attempts to reach an agreement on the issue—including the introduction of an earlier version of a “clean up” bill that cleared an Assembly committee late last month—but a top senator signaled that negotiations are over with respect to his chamber’s measure.

Sen. Nicholas Scutari (D), chair of the Judiciary Committee, cancelled a scheduled vote on newly revised clean up legislation in his panel on Wednesday. There was a hearing on that bill on Monday, and a vote that was originally set for Tuesday was also cancelled.

Scutari said on Wednesday that the governor’s request to add penalties for underage marijuana use was sufficiently addressed in the December legislation that’s already on his desk and “all avenues to clarify it any further are exhausted,” according to NJ.com.

Advocates have pushed back against the Murphy’s underage penalties request, arguing that it threatens to perpetuate the consequences of racially discriminatory enforcement practices.

The governor’s deadline to act on the cannabis implementation bill on his desk—in addition to the complementary decriminalization measure—depends on the next time the Assembly quorums, which could be as soon as Friday. He could sign, veto or conditionally veto the bills; the latter option would send any proposal back to the legislature to approve or reject changes he made. If Murphy takes no action on the bills, they will become law without his signature.

Scutari said he doesn’t feel there would be enough support among lawmakers to approve a conditionally vetoed bill and he’s “hopeful that they’ll do the right thing and sign” as is.

As it stands, the legalization and decriminalization bills awaiting Murphy’s action are in conflict, suggesting that follow-up legislation may be needed in any case. The former treats underage possession as a disorderly persons offense while the latter removes all cannabis penalties for underage people.

The governor pledged in a State of the State address last month that the state was “on the verge of passing an innovative and groundbreaking set of laws to reform our historically unjust approach to marijuana and cannabis.” But now it seems the ball is in his court as to whether that actually happens.

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 legalization vote and a call by the state attorney general for prosecutors to suspend low-level marijuana cases.

While marijuana policy is in flux in New Jersey, Murphy did sign a bill this month that reclassifies possession of up to an ounce of psilocybin mushrooms as a disorderly persons offense.

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Kyle Jaeger is Marijuana Moment's Sacramento-based senior editor. His work has also appeared in High Times, VICE and attn.

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