Capping off a three-year-long effort to legalize recreational marijuana in New Jersey, Gov. Phil Murphy signed several bills into law on Monday officially regulating cannabis use and possession for adults 21 years and older, halting arrests for pot possession and establishing new penalties for those younger than 21 caught with the drug.
New Jersey will now become the 15th state with legalized recreational marijuana laws on the books, and only the fourth on the east coast, joining Massachusetts, Vermont and Maine.
The move by Murphy comes over three months after two-thirds of New Jersey voters threw their support behind a ballot question that altered the state’s constitution to clear the way for lawmakers to establish rules that would create a recreational cannabis industry and regulate the use of the drug in the Garden State.
The legislation that would have brought the constitutional amendment into effect had been stalled for weeks prior to Monday over contradictory language in the original two bills that would have eliminated penalties for minors caught in possession of or using marijuana – an issue that Murphy’s office did not catch until the legislation reached his desk.
Lawmakers had until noon on Monday to pass a cleanup bill that would clarify punishments for minors, ultimately settling on a three-tiered warning system for those under the legal age caught with both marijuana and alcohol that stripped all civil penalties and fines. In both cases, the most serious punishment for both would be a referral to a community service program that would teach the offender about drug and alcohol abuse.
“This legislation will establish an industry that brings equity and economic opportunity to our communities, while establishing minimum standards for safe products and allowing law enforcement to focus their resources on real public safety matters,” Murphy said at a press conference. “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.”
The legislation was celebrated by the American Civil Liberties Union’s New Jersey chapter, who helped to campaign with New Jersey United for Marijuana Reform on behalf of last year’s ballot measure to legalize pot.
“With Governor Murphy’s signature, the decades-long practice of racist marijuana enforcement will begin to recede, in a shift that emphasizes the urgency of building the most equitable framework possible for cannabis legalization,” Amol Sinha, executive director of the ACLU of New Jersey, said in a statement. “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.”
Now, under the new laws adults 21 years and older will be able to legally possess up to 6 ounces of marijuana will allow the purchase and sale of recreational weed at state licenses dispensaries, though it remains to be seen when those dispensaries will be able to open.
New Jersey currently has 13 medical marijuana dispensaries that serve qualified patients with medical cards.
Still, it remains unlikely that college students will see any change in on-campus enforcement practices thanks in part to a 1996 law that allows the federal government to withhold funding from colleges and public schools that do not ban drugs on their campuses
Winston Roberts, associate dean of students at Seton Hall, noted last week that even under New Jersey’s latest laws, consumption of the drug would remain illegal on public and private college campuses regardless of if someone is of legal age.
Also included in the bills signed by Murphy on Monday is a pathway to eliminate certain marijuana offenses that occurred before the enactment of the laws on Monday, which may provide some relief to the nearly 6,000 New Jerseyans arrested in the months since the state’s ballot question passed.
“Too many people have been arrested, incarcerated and left with criminal records that disrupt and even destroy their lives. We don’t want the criminal justice system to be an unfair barrier to success,” Senator Nicholas Nicholas Scutari, who has been one of the leading advocates in New Jersey pushing for marijuana legalization, said on Monday. “By implementing a regulated system that allows people age 21 and over to purchase limited amounts of 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.”
Nicholas Kerr can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find him on Twitter @nickdotkerr.