NJ Legal Weed Takes A Big Step Forward

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New Jersey state capitol building in Trenton. Photo: Shutterstock

TRENTON – After stops and starts, New Jersey could finally legalize weed and as soon as Monday following legislative maneuvering that also would change the law for underage drinking.

The Senate Judiciary Committee on Friday advanced a bill that would treat underage drinking and underage marijuana use or possession as virtually the same offense — and make both offenses subject to written warnings instead of fines or other charges.

The bill, which was approved in a 6-to-2 vote with one abstention, would create a three-tiered system of written warnings applying to anyone under 21 years old found in possession of marijuana or alcohol.

On the first offense, the person would be issued a written warning. On the second offense, the person’s parents or guardians would be notified and provided information about community services or groups offering education on substance use.

On a third or subsequent offense, the person would be referred to those community services or groups.

“We can only begin to end the racial disparities of marijuana arrests and build a new cannabis market by putting legalization and decriminalization into law. This clean-up bill will help move this process forward,” said Sarah Fajardo, policy director for the American Civil Liberties Union of New Jersey.

She added: “We must ensure that no one is ensnared in a criminal legal system marked by inequities, and that includes young people. We know that a punitive approach causes lasting harms, without deterring use, and we believe this legislation takes an important step away from that model.”

Previous versions of the bill included fines of up to $500 for anyone under 21 caught with marijuana. The version of the bill passed Friday was the first draft to include language removing fines for underage drinking.

Under current law, underage possession of alcohol can result in a fine between $500 and $1,000.

The bill faces a full floor vote in the Senate and Assembly on Monday.

If passed, it will serve as “clean-up” legislation to a two-bill package already passed by the full Legislature in December. Those measures await Gov. Phil Murphy’s signature.

The two bills would decriminalize the possession of up to 6 ounces of marijuana, allow the purchase of legal weed at state-licensed dispensaries and set up the framework for New Jersey’s legal cannabis industry.

Those bills served to put into action the pro-legalization constitutional amendment approved by more than two-thirds of voters on Election Day.

But Murphy refused to sign the bills without additional language detailing how the new marijuana laws would be enforced against those under 21 years old, as specified in the ballot question.

“There are a lot of folks right now doing extraordinary work trying to get to a good place,” Murphy said during a Friday news conference. “There are a lot of folks trying to do anything they can to get this thing into a good place before the clock runs out.

“It’s too early to predict where this lands but, God willing, it lands in the right place.”

Crafting the language that enforces the age requirement for marijuana use has been a tedious battle.

In the last week alone, the Senate Judiciary Committee scheduled four different meetings to advance the bill, only to cancel or postpone any discussion of it until Friday.

Numerous Black and Latinx lawmakers have remained steadfast that the bill needed to have more protections for Black and brown youth caught smoking weed.

According to the ACLU New Jersey, a Black person is about 3.5 times more likely to be arrested for marijuana possession than a white person, despite historically similar usage rates.

Sen. Ron Rice, D-Essex, voted against advancing the bill, arguing that it should be amended to remove police officers’ “qualified immunity” when it comes to enforcing it.

“Our concern is not the politics of it. Our concern is protecting the rights of these young boys and girls,” Rice said.

Qualified immunity is a defense invoked by government employees, including police officers, when accused of violating someone’s constitutional rights.

Social justice activists say that defense makes it nearly impossible to hold officers accountable in civil court, but its supporters argue it’s a necessity to protect officers who must make quick judgements while on duty.

In the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and other Black people at the hands of police, social justice activists nationwide have called for policies removing or altering laws giving police officers qualified immunity.

“The majority of abuse continues to be in the minority community, and the majority of the victims continue to be people of color,” Rice said.

Rice and Sen. Troy Singleton, D-Burlington, are expected to lead a push for a qualified immunity amendment on the floor Monday.

The convoluted process of legalizing marijuana in New Jersey is due to the specific language of the state constitution and the amendment approved by voters. The amendment stated that marijuana would be “legal and subject to regulations,” effective Jan. 1, 2021.

But constitutional scholars and state officials have told the USA TODAY NETWORK that the “and” in the amendment links the drug’s legality to both the effective date and the enabling legislation that’s been held up since November.

Since then, legislators and the governor’s office have feuded over the number of permits for cannabis growers, changes to workplace drug testing laws and a tax structure that would both drive state revenue and repay communities most impacted by the war on drugs.

While legal weed was placed on the ballot in December 2019, legislators did not begin publicly discussing or debating the enabling legislation until after Election Day 2020.