Marijuana legalization collapses

More than two months after voters overwhelmingly approved a constitutional amendment to legalize marijuana in New Jersey, the state Legislature and Gov. Phil Murphy are at an impasse over the details.

Until laws implementing the constitutional amendment are signed, New Jersey residents can still be arrested for possessing even small amounts of marijuana.

The Senate and Assembly passed enabling legislation to set a regulatory framework for the new industry, after New Jersey voters approved a measure on the General Election ballot in November to legalize recreational cannabis in the Garden State.

Murphy has not yet signed the legislation.

Instead, the Democratic administration raised what have been called ‘last-minute technical concerns’ over cannabis measures sent to the governor’s desk on Dec. 17, a full two weeks before the new constitutional amendment was to take effect.

Sens. Teresa Ruiz and Nicholas Scutari subsequently pulled their support from legislation that would set penalties for underage possession of marijuana.

“The voters overwhelmingly passed marijuana legalization on the November ballot, sending a loud and clear that prohibition does not work,” said Lisa McCormick, a social justice advocate who said the political establishment is bogged down over how to tax cannabis sales and deliver market advantages to wealthy donors rather than expedite investments in communities harmed most by the drug war.

“New Jersey should stop dawdling and focus on dismantling the failed War on Drugs, which has unfairly harmed Black and Latino communities,” said McCormick.

Brandon McKoy, president of New Jersey Policy Perspective (NJPP), said a report released in 2016, described how a legal cannabis market could net the state over $300 million in annual revenue.

“This bill will use the tax revenue from legal cannabis sales to invest in communities harmed most by the drug war,” said McKoy of legislation Murphy has had on his desk since Dec 17, 2020.

McKoy warned that a low cap on licenses and other provisions would create an unnecessarily restricted market, leaving little-to-no opportunity for equity candidates who have less capital and limited resources to break into the market.

Unless entrepreneurs are free to get into this business, New Jersey would drastically reduce funds collected from the excise fee on legal cannabis that could be directed into communities harmed by the War on Drugs.

After the Assembly approved A21 by a 49 to 24 vote, and the Senate later approved S21 by a 23 to 17 vote, Garden State NORML Executive Director Charlana McKeithen said, “After over half a century of unjust and racist cannabis policies, the state of New Jersey finally took decisive action today to end the practice of cannabis criminalization.”

Murphy is calling for lawmakers to impose civil penalties of either $250 or $500 for offenses involving use and possession of up to one ounce of marijuana by those under 21.

The proposed law now imposes no fine. The Governor has stated that he intends to sign the package of bills at the same time, and is demanding that lawmakers amend the legislation prior to taking any further action.

Murphys failure to sign the law means residents could still still be arrested in violation of the voters’ intent. 

Historically, New Jersey law enforcement officers arrested more people per capita for marijuana law violations than almost any other state.

NORML State Policies Coordinator Carly Wolf said: “It is paramount that lawmakers agree to a legislative remedy by the end of the year in order to comport with the will of the voters and to avoid further confusion. Justice delayed is justice denied.”

“It is long past time that New Jerseyans enjoyed the same freedoms as those in many other states and are able to legally possess cannabis without the threat of arrest, prosecution, and incarceration,” Wolf said.

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