Clean Up Bill for Recreational Marijuana Use Clears Legislature After Long Delay

After an over two month delay, Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law three bills that legalized and decriminalized marijuana after lawmakers in Trenton finally agreed to a clean up bill focused on penalties for underage use. 

“Although this process has taken longer than anticipated, I believe it is ending in the right place and will ultimately serve as a national model,” said Murphy at a press briefing Feb. 22. 

Under the legalization bill, the Cannabis Regulatory Commission (CRC) will oversee regulations to govern the medical and adult-use industries as well as the applications for licensing of cannabis businesses. The legislation provides for the Legislature to reinvest cannabis revenues in designated “impact zones;” directs the CRC to promote diversity and inclusion in business ownership; and contains critical employment protections for people who engage in lawful behavior with respect to cannabis.

Vacating Sentences

The decriminalization reforms include criminal and civil penalties for marijuana offenses while providing remedies for people currently facing certain marijuana charges. The legislation signed into law prevents unlawful low-level distribution and possession offenses from being used in pretrial release, probation, and parole decisions. Furthermore, the law provides certain protections against discrimination in employment, housing, and places of public accommodation. 

Additionally, it creates a pathway to vacate active sentences for certain offenses committed in the last few months. 

The clean up bill clarified penalties for marijuana and cannabis possession and consumption for individuals younger than 21 years old, passing by a 22-12 margin in the State Senate and 49-27-1 in the Assembly on Feb. 22. 

Clean Up Bill

Under the new bill that forced the delay since December 2020, those between the ages of 18-21 would get two written warnings if they are found with marijuana illegally. A third offense would require a $50 fine or community service and result in referral to community treatment and education programs. But the offenses would not carry fines, criminal records or jail time.

The law now moves the burden from underage people who use marijuana as well as alcohol to those who provide young people with it. They can face $250 fines for a first offense and a petty disorderly offense for subsequent acts, which could result in a $500 fine and up to 30 days in jail.

The clock began ticking for lawmakers after New Jersey voters last November approved a measure to amend the state Constitution with 67% of the vote to legalize pot effective Jan. 1.

The legislature passed the legalization and decriminalization bills on Dec. 17, 2020 but Murphy refused to sign the bills until a contradiction in the two measures over penalties for minors caught with marijuana was addressed. 

Social Justice

But several previous attempts to pass enabling legislation since then went nowhere, mostly due to concerns raised by the Black and Latino legislative caucuses—and supported by Murphy—over the lack of racial and social justice remedies in the bills. 

“Our current marijuana prohibition laws have failed every test of social justice, which is why for years I’ve strongly supported the legalization of adult-use cannabis,” said Murphy. “Maintaining a status quo that allows tens of thousands, disproportionately people of color, to be arrested in New Jersey each year for low-level drug offenses is unjust and indefensible.” 

The new bill addresses concerns of those caucuses by requiring law enforcement agencies to scrub records of youth marijuana offenses every two years or when a given underage user turns 21, and requires police to have their body cameras enabled during interactions. Those records must be reviewed by the State Attorney General’s Office, which must submit a report to the CRC.

Bergen: Worse Off Today

But North Jersey lawmakers—both Republicans and Democrats—expressed their dissatisfaction with the policy and the process, which had included the Assembly having to cancel meetings and all other action on legislation for two weeks as lawmakers worked on the under age penalty bill.

Assemblyman Brian Bergen (R-25), who voted against the legislation, stated “It is a sad day for parents and police” as Democrats are sacrificing the safety of children under the guise of social justice.

“How on earth can anyone justify making it virtually legal for kids to possess and use drugs and alcohol underage, while simultaneously making our cops criminals for trying to stop them,” saked Bergen. “We are worse off today than we were yesterday, and I fear for the future of our children.”

Sarlo Sour on Process

State Sen. Paul Sarlo (D-36), while voting for the bill, criticized the legislation that he still sees needing to address such as issues dealing with employee and employer protections. The State Senator called the process a “debacle…today is anything but momentous.”

“Unfortunately, all of us, we bungled this process,” stated Sarlo. “I asked for commonsense protections (for) folks who work on dangerous construction sites, and quite frankly, my amendments were pushed aside.”

Despite the pushback, Murphy and supporters of the bills believe the legislation will establish an industry that brings equity and economic opportunities, minimum standards for safe products and allows law enforcement to focus their resources on real public safety matters.  

“Today, we’re taking a monumental step forward to reduce racial disparities in our criminal justice system, while building a promising new industry and standing on the right side of history,” said Murphy.

Economic Opportunity

“This new law includes real, enterprising opportunities for New Jersey communities that have been disproportionately impacted by cannabis prohibition, along with more defined employment opportunities and a commission that requires diversity,” said Assemblywoman Britnee Timberlake (D-34) in a press statement. “This will be a clear revenue generator for the state, and the social justice and diversity portion in the legislation remains imperative.”  

In the end, State Sen. Nick Scutari (D-22), the co-prime sponsor of the bill in the Senate, summed up the road to passing the legislation best by stating  “No one’s happy (but) let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good.”

By implementing a regulated system that allows people age 21 and over to purchase marijuana for personal use, “we will bring marijuana out of the underground market where it can be controlled, regulated and taxed, just as alcohol has been for decades,” said Scutari.

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