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A weed legalization bill inches closer to approval in N.J. after a long wait

The purported holdup has been Murphy’s concern that the proposed law hasn’t specified uniform penalties for underage users.

Marijuana grows at an indoor cannabis farm.
Marijuana grows at an indoor cannabis farm.Read moreRichard Vogel

New Jersey voters approved a measure in November to legalize recreational marijuana. More than three months later, Gov. Phil Murphy still hasn’t signed a bill to make it happen. And, in the interim, thousands of people have been arrested on cannabis possession charges.

The purported holdup has been Murphy’s concern that the proposed law hasn’t specified uniform penalties for underage users.

This week, state Sen. Nilsa Cruz-Perez, (D., Camden) and state Sen. Nick Scutari (D., Linden) introduced a “cleanup” bill to address Murphy’s concerns.

It provides for light penalties for underage use. It discourages police from making arrests by making the process onerously time-consuming. It also creates a 26-person task force to review underage marijuana consumption in the Garden State and police encounters with users.

The cleanup bill is slated to be heard in committee in Trenton on Monday. It must pass both the Assembly and the Senate — and there is no guarantee it will — before Thursday for it to proceed to the governor’s desk, as per the agreement between Murphy and the Legislature.

“It’s my understanding we have broad agreement, “ Scutari said. “It may not be unanimous, but we have majority. I think the governor will sign this simultaneously along with the other two bills that will create the cannabis industry and stop arrests.”

That could happen by the end of next week.

State Sen. Troy Singleton (D., Moorestown) said the governor’s delay had caused a “level of frustration for many of us.”

“My colleagues in the Black and Hispanic caucus have been working with the leadership that is respectful of the process but also make sure that our children don’t become political casualties,” Singleton said. “It didn’t need to be held hostage while we were working on a cleanup bill to effectively stop the thousands of arrests for a product that the voters of New Jersey said was no longer illegal.”

The cleanup bill makes possession of any cannabis a civil penalty of up to $50 for people ages 18 to 21.

It forbids police from using the scent of marijuana as probable cause to conduct a search. It requires police officers to activate their body cameras before investigating a suspected cannabis violation. A minor who is caught with cannabis items may not be photographed or fingerprinted. Any records generated by a police encounter over a minor’s use of weed must be destroyed within two years.

It would also grant immunity from prosecution for any underage person who reports a cannabis medical emergency or is in need of medical assistance due to an unlikely cannabis-caused emergency.

“I’m happy we’re ending our reliance on the criminal justice system to prevent use by minors. That’s because it simply doesn’t work,” said David Nathan, a psychiatrist and founder of Doctors for Cannabis Regulation. “The preponderance of evidence shows cannabis can indeed be harmful to the developing brain. The younger you are and the more you use, the worse the outcomes appear to be. The best way to prevent underage use is telling kids what the real dangers are.”

Bill Caruso, a lobbyist and head of the cannabis practice at Archer Law in Haddonfield, said the new legislation “attempts to bridge the divide between the question of what penalties should exist for minors. It appears to strike the right balance.”

The bill does not mandate drug treatment for any minor offender.

As for the task force with over two dozen appointed members? No one had directly asked for that.

“Essentially the task force’s mission is to figure out all the problems the legislators can’t figure out right now,” said Chris Goldstein, an activist and regional organizer for NORML, the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws. “Maybe that’s the default Jersey solution.”