TRENTON – New Jersey on Monday officially became the 13th state to legalize marijuana, as Gov. Phil Murphy signed into law three bills putting into effect a ballot question overwhelmingly supported by voters last year.
New Jersey becomes the first Mid-Atlantic state to eschew decades of weed arrests in favor of a program long touted by social justice advocates. It marks the end of tens of thousands of weed arrests annually and the beginning of a cannabis industry that could be an economic boom for the state and region.
Currently, the only other states on the East Coast to legalize weed are Maine, Vermont and Massachusetts.
“New Jersey’s broken, indefensible marijuana laws — which permanently stained the records of many residents and short-circuited their futures, disproportionately hurt communities of color and failed the meaning of justice at every level, social or otherwise — are no more,” Murphy said in a press conference. “In their place are laws that will usher in a new industry, based on equity, which will reinvest dollars into communities — laws which promote both public health by promoting safe cannabis products and public safety by allowing law enforcement to focus their resources on serious crimes.
“And yes, we are fulfilling the will of the voters by allowing adult use cannabis, while having in place common sense measures to deter its use among kids,” Murphy added.
The laws signed Monday allow the possession and use of marijuana by anyone over 21 years old within the state of New Jersey. They can have up to 6 ounces of weed on them without facing any penalty.
The laws also allow the purchase and sale of legal weed at state-licensed dispensaries, though it could be well over a year before recreational sales even began.
Some marijuana offenses will remain criminal, including drug distribution and growing cannabis plants without a license. New Jersey is the only state with legal weed that doesn’t allow at least its medical marijuana patients to grow weed. It joins Washington as the only states without some recreational home grow.
“We’re going to go with the bills I just signed. We’ll leave it at that,” Murphy said, deflecting a question about home grow. “I appreciate the folks who have reached out on that front, but we’re going to go with what we’ve got.”
Distribution of up to 1 ounce of weed will be penalized with a written warning on a subject’s first offense.
The new laws capped three months of legislative debate over the rules and regulations for legal weed, most recently a weeks-long stalemate over penalties for marijuana users under the age of 21.
More than two-thirds of New Jersey voters backed a marijuana ballot question in November, but the constitutional amendment put forth by the referendum could not take effect until such rules and regulations were in place.
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In New Jersey, the campaign to legalize marijuana was largely pursued as a social justice-driven mission.
The “vote yes” campaign, dubbed NJ CAN 2020, was led by officials from the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey, who ran digital advertisements — live events were dismissed due to the raging COVID-19 pandemic — educating voters on the negative effects of a simple low-level marijuana possession arrest and the millions in tax dollars spent on prosecuting such cases.
“Our state’s cannabis laws can set a new standard for what justice can look like, with the removal of criminal for possession and an unprecedented portion of revenue dedicated to addressing the harms wrought by the drug war,” ACLU-NJ executive director Amol Sinha said. “This is a new beginning – and the culmination of years of advocacy – and we must keep in mind that it is only the start.
“Signing these laws puts in motion the next phase of this effort: to work relentlessly to transform the principles of legalization into greater racial and social justice in New Jersey.”
According to crime data from the FBI, New Jersey police departments made over 33,000 arrests for marijuana in 2017, the ninth-highest marijuana arrest rate per capita in the country, according to the ACLU.
And in New Jersey, Black people were 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than white people, despite similar usage rates among races, the ACLU said.
“The failed War on Drugs has systematically targeted people of color and the poor, disproportionately impacting Black and brown communities and hurting families in New Jersey and across our nation,” U.S. Sen. Cory Booker, D-New Jersey, said in a statement. “Today is a historic day.”
Stops and starts
Murphy, in his 2017 gubernatorial campaign, ran on a platform that included legalizing marijuana under a banner of social justice.
But advocates feared that such a mission had been lost in the shuffle since Election Day, as Murphy and legislative leaders negotiated the enabling legislation required to put the ballot question into action.
The ballot question’s constitutional amendment, for example, simply stated that the drug would be taxed at the state sales tax rate, currently 6.625%, to provide revenue for the state budget and defray the costs of police departments training officers to detect drugged drivers.
But advocates said that such a plan left out the largely Black communities where marijuana laws had been disproportionately enforced for decades.
The result was a unique two-tax structure that would send about 60% of tax revenue and 100% of revenue from a new “social justice user fee” to one of 20 “impact zones,” as decided by the Cannabis Regulatory Commission, the authority that will oversee not just legal weed for recreational use but the state’s growing medical marijuana program.
“It took us a long time to get here, but thankfully, finally we can move forward. We can stop the senseless arrests for possession and use of a product that should have never been criminalized in the first place, and the voters approved over three months ago,” New Jersey CannaBusiness Association President Edmund DeVeaux said in a statement. “We can get down to the business of establishing a responsible, sustainable, profitable and diverse adult-use and expanded medical cannabis market in New Jersey.
“Now the real work can begin.”
On Monday, lawmakers finally ended a six-week stalemate over how the state will penalize underage marijuana users, sending Murphy a “clean-up” bill designed to complement the pair already passed by the Legislature in December.
Those bills left open a major contradiction, with one stating that possessing marijuana under 21 years old was illegal while the other stated that no person — without age restriction — could face penalty for possession of up to 6 ounces of marijuana.
The resulting compromise, which passed the Legislature on Monday morning, put into place a three-tiered warning system for both underage marijuana and alcohol use.
Both will be treated as virtually the same crime, with the most serious penalty capped at a simple referral to community service groups to teach the offender about substance abuse.
All civil penalties and fines, even from underage drinking citations, were removed.
“It has been a long, strange trip but, together, we have worked across racial, socioeconomic, cultural, religious, ideological and partisan boundaries to change the culture concerning cannabis in New Jersey,” said Bill Caruso, an attorney and advocate who co-founded New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform, which began the push to legalize weed years ago. “These efforts were validated this November here in NJ and across the country where cannabis won a resounding victory among a divided electorate.
“And it is heartening to see our government leaders now answer that call.”
The debate over Monday’s “clean-up” bill to close that loophole almost derailed the process numerous times since December, when the issue was first raised.
In early February, Murphy was hours away from a conditional veto over the bill package, refusing to consider bills that essentially legalized marijuana for children.
“While we are pleased to see the will of New Jersey voters finally enshrined into approved legislation, it was a grotesque failure on the part of elected leadership that it took so long to do so,” said Erik Altieri, executive director of the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws, the nation’s oldest marijuana legalization advocacy group. “Despite nearly seven in ten New Jersey residents voting in favor of legalization on Election Day, it took lawmakers 111 days following that vote to achieve consensus to enact enabling legislation into law,”
Murphy’s signature on all three bills came just after a noon deadline on Monday, when those bills technically became law even without his participation. The Senate and Assembly held special voting session on Monday morning just to ensure the process would finally come to a conclusion.
Just after 11 a.m., the Senate passed the clean-up bill by a 22-to-12 vote. About 45 minutes later, the Assembly passed the bill by a 49-to-27 vote, sending it to Murphy’s desk.
“I would like to say this is a momentous day, but I’ve probably said that once before — more than once before,” said Sen. Nick Scutari, D-Union, who sponsored the legal weed bills and the clean-up bill passed Monday. “Hopefully, we’ll be able to not just put this topic behind us but move forward with what the voters have implored us to do.”
Mike Davis is an award-winning reporter who has spent the last decade covering New Jersey local news, marijuana legalization, transportation and basically whatever else is going on at any given moment. Contact him at [email protected] or @byMikeDavis on Twitter.