Cannabis Legalization in Key States: Legislature’s Twilight Moves Save Legal Cannabis in New Jersey

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Cannabis Legalization in Key States: Legislature’s Twilight Moves Save Legal Cannabis in New Jersey

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Stephan M. Wazny, Joel M. Wallace

Last week, New Jersey Governor Phil Murphy signed three bills that pave the way for legal recreational cannabis sales in New Jersey, after uncertainty swirled around the fate of the legislation even on the day of signing. A clean-up measure reached the governor’s desk only minutes before his signing deadlines.

As we’ve previously reported, the first bill – Assembly Bill 21– decriminalized possession and expanded the state’s existing medical marijuana framework to also cover recreational use. The second bill – Assembly Bill A1897– was initially introduced in January 2020, before New Jersey’s vote to legalize recreational cannabis. It reforms criminal and civil penalties for cannabis offenses, and specifically prohibits courts from considering low-level marijuana offenses in pretrial, parole, and probation proceedings, and also prohibits depriving employment, housing, or child custody opportunities based on these offenses. Both bills passed the Houses of the New Jersey legislature in December 2020 but have sat on the governor’s desk since.

Why the Delay?

Governor Murphy did not sign the bills because of concerns with how the law addressed underage possession and use of marijuana – namely, the lack of any uniform penalties in the proposed bill. Some feared a conditional veto was imminent. That would mean the governor would return the bill to the legislature with proposed revisions, which the legislature would then need to enact before returning the bill to the Governor. Senate leadership did not anticipate support for the governor’s expected revisions, and people expected that a veto would delay legalization until the end of 2021 while the legislature managed other priorities.

The New Jersey legislature worked hard to address the governor’s concerns and establish structured underage use penalties. In this effort, the legislature addressed concerns from New Jersey’s Black Legislative Caucus which feared that penalties would disparately affect minority youth because of uneven police enforcement. However, after two unsuccessful efforts to enact a cleanup bill, a third measure survived the legislature and arrived on the governor’s desk on Monday morning, only 20 minutes before his deadline to sign the first two legalization bills.

The bill – Assembly Bill A5342 – lays out a warning system for underage cannabis use that would eventually lead to referral to community education or treatment and no mandatory arrest or fine. The bill also restricts New Jersey police conduct: specifically, police are prohibited from making stops based on the smell of cannabis, required to use body cams when interacting with underage people, and restricted from detaining minors based on cannabis use beyond issuing a warning.

Next Step: Licensing

With Governor Murphy’s signature, New Jersey can begin the path toward licensing businesses to make legal cannabis sales. First, Governor Murphy must seat the remaining positions on the newly expanded Cannabis Regulatory Commission, and the Commission will then begin creating and implementing New Jersey’s licensing system. The bill grants the Commission six months to set up this system, and thus it remains possible that New Jersey could see legal sales before the end of 2021. But even if delays drag out the process, the passage of the legalization bills itself is a massive achievement for cannabis advocates and both paves the way for legal sales and immediately relieves the threat of cannabis arrests in New Jersey.